This is an A-minus paper?

  • 31 March 2014
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University of North Carolina football players run onto the field in 2010.
Image caption The University of North Carolina has been rocked by allegations of academic fraud in its athletic department

The ongoing academic fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina's athletic department has been at a slow burn for months, as salacious bits of news have been unearthed by investigative journalists.

The latest piece of evidence that North Carolina (UNC) athletes were getting passing grades in their college courses with little or no work comes in the form of a "paper" on civil rights icon Rosa Parks, provided to the ESPN sports network by former UNC tutor turned whistleblower Mary Willingham.

Here's the text, in its entirety:

On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the white people section on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. "Let me have those front seats" said the driver. She didn't get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. "I'm going to have you arrested," said the driver. "You may do that," Rosa Parks responded. Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them "why do you all push us around?" The police officer replied and said "I don't know, but the law is the law and you're under arrest.

The work was the final essay in a class for which an unnamed athlete received a grade of A-minus. (And as freelance writer Bryan Graham points out via Twitter, the piece was probably plagiarised from the first page of Rosa Parks' autobiography.)

According to the website of the UNC registrar's office, "A" level work requires:

Mastery of course content at the highest level of attainment that can reasonably be expected of students at a given stage of development.

The A grade states clearly that the students have shown such outstanding promise in the aspect of the discipline under study that he/she may be strongly encouraged to continue.

With the college basketball tournament known as "March Madness" in full swing, the ESPN story received extensive media commentary.

"If this is the kind of education that student-athletes can get away with, then student-athlete is a totally meaningless term," writes the Washington Post's Alexandra Petri. "Student is already a meaningless enough term for the majority of the body. But this definitely does not amount to an A-. It doesn't even amount to a paper."

Slate's Jordan Weissman says that although UNC has been singled out for criticism, this is likely happening at all universities with high-profile college athletic programmes.

"Those who think that most big-time college athletes are at school first and foremost to be educated are fooling themselves," he writes. "They're there to work and earn money and prestige for the school."

A friend of mine who happens to be black recounted to me a joke told by liberal comedian Bill Maher last week, "March Madness really is a stirring reminder of what America was founded on: making tons of money off the labour of unpaid black people."

The reality is the combination of race, sports and lots and lots money are turning college athletics in the US into a powder keg, and stories like the ones coming out of North Carolina have helped light the fuse.

The day after ESPN ran its piece last week, the federal National Labor Relations Board decided to allow athletes at Northwestern University in Illinois to proceed with their plans to unionise and collectively bargain with their school for greater benefits - possibly including financial compensation beyond tuition and room and board.

The notion that participants in major college sports are still "scholar-athletes" becomes more and more difficult to defend with each new revelation from schools like UNC.

Add in the mounting scientific evidence that high-contact sports like US football can cause long-term brain damage, and it seems increasingly likely that intercollegiate athletics, as it is now structured, is an unsustainable proposition.