From Sports Fanaticism to Plagiarism: This Week in What Is Wrong with Education

In the fall of 1984, I entered the field of education as a high school English teacher, assigned the exact room in which I had been a student and where my mentor, Lynn Harrill, had taught before moving on to a district-level job.

Oddly, 18 years later, I transitioned to higher education after completing the same doctoral program as Lynn; the odd part is that I again filled the position Lynn left to return to public education. My office then and now was designed by Lynn as the education department was moving into a new building just as he left and I was hired.

Over my 33 years as an educator, I have acquired expertise and experience in two fields, education and English, and in two levels of formal education, K-12 public and university/college.

I entered education because I recognized early that although I excelled in and benefitted greatly from education, formal education was deeply flawed. Most of the good in formal education survived in spite of the system—because of wonderful teachers who somehow rose above the system and because some of us had privileges that allowed us to excel, again, in spite of not because of.

From about the fall of my junior year of college on, however, I knew that formal schooling tended to reflect and perpetuate the very worst of our society; that although education could be revolutionary and transformational, it often was not.

My career as an educator also began almost exactly at the genesis of the accountability era that has been an epic failure because the political prognosis of educational failure was completely wrong and thus the cures have all been disastrous.

Formal education at all levels in the U.S. suffers from the corrosive influences of privilege and inequity, and since those with power benefit mightily from that privilege and inequity, they will never (and probably are not able to) address those genuine failures—what I would phrase as: We have failed formal education; formal education has not failed us.

The week leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017 has been illustrative of the kinds of problems with education that the powers-that-be are apt to ignore and reject, and these examples have come in an unlikely pair: Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney and Monica Crowley, who is poised to serve in the Trump administration.

Swinney, as Dave Zirin unmasks, represents an “obscene amount of entitlement” because in the U.S. scholastic sports and coaches enjoy a perverse and warped degree of fanaticism; Zirin continues:

Here is someone working on a refurbished plantation who makes millions of dollars off the sweat and head injuries of overwhelmingly black, unpaid labor, and yet when asked about the Black Lives Matter movement in September, he said, ”Some of these people need to move to another country.”…

College football is a septic tank of entitlement. It’s a fungal culture created by the head coaches of Big Football. Dabo Swinney is the very embodiment of that culture: adrift, clueless, and filthy rich.

Quoted in Zirin’s piece, Clemson assistant professor Chenjerai Kumanyika has confronted his university, the football program at Clemson, and Swinney; as well, Kumanyika has a unique perspective he has shared on Facebook:

Clemson University as a public institution founded in and remaining mostly resistant to moving beyond its racist roots (see AD Carson and Clemson’s Tillman Hall and the Tragedy of Southern Tradition), the National Champion Clemson football team, and Swinney are all powerful examples of the veneers that exist to mask what the powers-that-be claim to be about and what they truly are about.

Let me stress here that Clemson University, Clemson football, and Swinney are not unique, not the worst, and certainly not outliers. The point here is that this is what education is in the U.S.

Hypocrisy is rampant not only in claims about student-athletes but also in the unholy alliance between athletics/coaches and Christianity.

From Zirin to Kumanyika to professor Louis Moore (and many others), scholastic sports has been confronted as a contemporary obscenity in which mostly white men accumulate great wealth and power on the backs of mostly black males—only a very few of which ever gain access to some of that wealth, too few are afforded the educations they are guaranteed, and way too many suffer great physical injury.

Coaches like Swinney and Nick Saban are multi-millionaires, and are allowed to hide behind sanctimonious rhetoric about grooming young men, offering educational opportunities to disadvantaged athletes, and instilling moral fiber through (as Swinney does) coercing players to be baptized and attend church services (again in the context of a public university).

I grew up in a small rural town in the South where the head football coach was God, and a truly despicable person. Decades before the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky revelation, I witnessed and lived how a person can be lionized and simultaneously daily behaving in ways that were inexcusable around young people.

Scholastic sports at all levels, “septic tank[s] of entitlement,” are systemic problems that create and enable people such as Swinney—again as a notable representative of the systemic inequity, not as the only one, not as a person to be vilified solely for who he is and what he reaps.

The sacred coach dynamic ultimately exposes how those in power live by one set of rules even as they impose upon those beneath them a much more stringent code.

And in that context we have the new brazenness of Trumplandia that flaunts that fact in the faces of everyone throughout the U.S.—personified recently by Monica Crowley who continues to succeed and looks to be a part of a presidential administration even though she is a serial plagiarist.

The Melania Trump speech has already contributed to the new normal that ethical boundaries do not matter to Trump, the Republican party, or his supporters.

Trump embracing Crowley, defending her against “fake news,” and the high likelihood she will not suffer much for these transgressions are no longer surprising.

As with Rand Paul and Joe Biden, the real world’s response to plagiarism is more about privilege than about any real ethical code—one that academics at all levels claim.

More urgent and more telling from the Crowley story are that a major publisher and a major university failed to catch her plagiarism.

Andrew Kaczynski, Chris Massie, and Nathan McDermott’s Trump aide Monica Crowley plagiarized thousands of words in Ph.D. dissertation is particularly damning—but again, not really about Crowley or Trump or the complete lack of ethical grounding in the U.S.

This is a parallel and ugly narrative about privilege and inequity, parallel to the fanaticism about scholastic sports.

Higher education often wraps itself in claims of academic and ethical rigor, but Crowley’s dissertation and the ability of CNN to detail it when the awarding university did not are where we should be focusing now.

From student-athletes to amateurism to academic integrity (do not forget the University of North Carolina)—there is a colloquial way to explain how Swinney and Crowley reveal what is wrong with education: it is all bullshit.

Bullshit shoveled by the powers-that-be who are created by and profit from the privilege and inequity built into and perpetuated by institutions such as formal education.

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The United States of Hypocrisy: Scholastic Sports

What would Jesus do?

Jesus would not turn an essentially powerful slogan into a marketing ploy.

Jesus would not participate in capitalism or consumerism, especially around a holiday that uses his name to boost sales.

And Jesus would not play scholastic competitive sports.

The slogan—What Would Jesus Do—has been haunting me since the 2015 ACC championship football game in which head coach of Clemson, Dabo Swinney, was captured on camera twice berating the team’s punter.

There are several important reasons this incident is worth more attention.

First, scholastic coaches screaming and swearing at their players is typical, both historically and currently, in sports; therefore, Swinney’s outbursts need not be singled out as somehow unique (with the important caveat that these moments of unequal chastising are disproportionately between white coaches and black athletes, unlike the Swinney incident).

Second, these fits of rage and profanity are demonstrated by coaches (leaders) who press their players moment by moment to be in control and to display high character.

And third, as someone who has been a high school athlete and coach in the Bible Belt, I have witnessed that scholastic sports are places where no one can hide from Christianity. As Diane Roberts explains:

Christianity and football, according to former Florida State and NFL star Deion Sanders, “go together like peanut butter and jelly” — and they have for a long time. The marriage between the Prince of Peace and America’s most warlike sport predates the Reagan era, when the religious right and the Republican Party became fatally entwined. In fact, it started more than a century ago, in England.

In this twisted conflating of competitive sports and Christian zeal, again, Swinney is not unique, but simply one of the more demonstrative coaches for Christ.

Just as the warmongering and daily intolerances as well as calloused demonizing of the poor and disregard for children in the United States prove that the country is no Christian nation, scholastic sports and the hypocrisy of the leaders are further evidence that the sloganification of Christianity is all word and no deed.

As I have argued before, there is no real or credible connection between academics and athletics, and the pontificating about student-athletes is mostly smoke and mirrors so that coaches, universities, and the NCAA can profit on the backs of young people who at some point loved the game.

This sanctimonious and vapid hand-holding between competitive sports and Christianity is but another piece of the larger United States of Hypocrisy pie.

Jesus wouldn’t berate a young person publicly, humiliating another human being.

But we don’t have to go that far—no one expects anyone to be an idealized personification of perfection.

Adult leaders of young people should have higher standards for themselves than the people they lead.

And there is no way to square Christianity with capitalism without corrupting Christianity.

Just as there is no way to square Christianity with competitive scholastic sports without corrupting Christianity:

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Academic Fraud and Scholastic Sport (Again)

Writing about the newly released investigation of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina, Barry Petchesky opens with:

We knew that UNC’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies offered sham classes. After the release of today’s independent investigation we now know it went on for nearly two decades, and involved thousands of students—nearly half of them athletes.

Let’s get the moralizing out of the way up top before we dive in: just remember, as you read this and are tempted to point out (accurately) that every program has joke classes, that the entire basis for amateurism relies on the idea that these athletes are paid with an education.

I want, as Petchesky requests, to reject using this report to bash specifically UNC athletics or academics, but I also want to note two claims here: “every program has joke classes” and “athletes are paid with an education.”

First, however, I must stress that I have made the case before that there simply is no credible connection between academics and athletics; thus, the obsession with scholastic sport in the U.S. is itself the problem. Every time we persist in using sport participation to entice and/or blackmail young people into committing to academics, we are corrupting both sport and academics.

In literature (see Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example) and research in behavioral science and economics (see Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity, for example), we have ample evidence that individual and collective behavior is often profoundly impacted by larger (and often interrelated) norms.

Not to overstate, but historical human scars on history such as the Holocaust or U.S. slavery are powerful narratives of how otherwise good people tolerated and even participated in barbarism—significantly because those actions appeared “right” in the context of an inexcusable set of cultural norms (eradicating Jews as the “Others,” enslaving blacks as the “Others”).

On a much smaller scale, then, if “every program has joke classes,” as Petchesky claims, then we must see UNC’s academic fraud as reflective of the utter failure of all scholastic sport.

By any credible measures, UNC is an elite academic institution and athletic program; thus, UNC has everything to gain from not stooping to academic fraud, and far more than most to lose by sinking into the norm of “every program has joke classes.”

And this, I think, leads to “athletes are paid with an education.”

While “paid” is a foundational concept in the U.S., it certainly is problematic. Once the payment gains more value to a person that the act itself, whatever leads to the payment becomes tarnished; this is the essential problem with external rewards.

Humans, again perfectly decent people in most all circumstances, are often apt to bend the rules of ethics as long as the payment keeps flowing—or the payment increases. As long as an education is merely “payment” for most college athletes, academics and athletics will both be corrupted. (My point here is that education and athletics should remain their own rewards—neither reduced as a means to the other.)

And this is particularly true because this claim—”athletes are paid with an education”—has another serious problem: For both athletes and non-athletes in the U.S., education is in fact not a terminal payment, but a means to terminal payment (while this claim is mostly misleading, we also bribe all students to commit to education by showing them charts correlating higher educational attainment with greater life-long salaries, despite evidence that race and class are greater indicators of attaining work and level of salary).

The ugly truth is that some or even many athletes see no value in formal education; an even uglier truth is that some athletes and non-athletes are correct when they do not value formal education because their lives and avocations will be just fine—or even exemplary—without formal education.

Athletes—like artists, musicians, or actors—may have gifts that are not traditionally academic and thus bribing them to participate in academics in order to play sport is creating the exact environment in which “every program has joke classes” becomes inevitable.

Those involved in academic fraud at UNC, or anywhere, in pursuit of athletic success should not be ignored, but if we once again punish and then ratchet up accountability and oversight because of this scandal, we are ultimately to blame for the next scandal because this UNC academic fraud case is an indictment of the entire scholastic sport machine, a machine that ultimately chews up and spits out the exact young people it claims to support.