Staying Clean: Can the Niners Stay Out of the Mud?

UNC Charlotte is launching a football program just as scandals are becoming increasingly common among the NCAA’s big-time programs. Where will Charlotte stand?


Published:

MITCHELL MACNAUGHTON

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Four years ago, Phil Dubois bought a new credenza for his office at UNC Charlotte. Crafted of a handsome dark wood, it is big enough that if stood on end its height would nearly match that of a good-sized defensive tackle.

Dubois, the chancellor, purchased it as he was pondering whether his university should add a football team. During a stretch of six months, he estimates he spent half of his working hours on the issue, weighing everything he could unearth about the pros and cons, amassing so many reports and surveys and analyses that he needed extra space to store them.

Now, with preparations afoot for the first game next year, Dubois is intent that neither he nor his successors ever have to endure a major NCAA investigation of football-related wrongdoing—improper recruiting, boosters who give money or other perks to players, coaches requiring their teams to practice more than is permissible, transcripts that are altered to make it appear that a prospect meets eligibility requirements, and term papers written for athletes, not by them.

Watch ESPN’s SportsCenter and you’ll hear that stuff over and over. An NCAA probe can bring embarrassing publicity to a university and significant penalties to its athletic department, and it generates bulging files of documents, records, and forms. Dubois doesn’t want to buy more furniture to house such flotsam and jetsam. He likes his
office as it is and his school’s reputation unsullied.

Certainly, it’s not the ideal juncture to launch football. The sport’s recent self-inflicted wounds—head-turning scandals at Southern California, Ohio State, and Miami—have given more ammunition to those who question its role in academe. The nation is stumbling through an epic economic downturn, and, as a result, state funding for higher education in North Carolina and elsewhere has shrunk, igniting crises for many universities. At the same time, the costs of big-time sports are soaring; critics of that trend range from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics to students whose fees are raised to help make up the difference. Meanwhile, the tectonic plates of college sports are shifting unpredictably, thanks to the influx of princely sums from television contracts, the realignment of conference membership (musical chairs, anyone?), and dissatisfaction with the NCAA as an organizing structure. Plus: seems as if every month a study emerges about the traumatic impact of football on players’ long-term health.

But Dubois and UNC Charlotte can make a good case for their decision. Football will strengthen the university’s relationship with the city and the region, attracting, it is hoped, alumni who haven’t been on campus since cap-and-gown day and throngs of people who’ve never before visited. Moreover, because college sports are careening toward a not-so-distant future in which schools with ambitious football programs wind up with even bigger advantages—benefiting from that television money, belonging to the most visible conferences—the argument is that it’s clearly best to avoid being among the have-nots. As higher education evolves into an increasingly competitive endeavor—witness the jousting for enrollment among traditional public and private colleges, their satellite campuses and online-learning programs, and the new for-profit schools—enlivening student life with the spectacle of football offers an edge in maintaining the flow of tuition checks.

All of which puts us back in Dubois’s office. It’s where he evaluated those pros and cons, and it’s where I’m interviewing him about his next challenge with football—ensuring that it creates only positives for UNC Charlotte, not a black eye. His jumping-off point is his university’s pristine history over four decades of Division I sports: “We’ve never had a major NCAA violation, and I can’t think of any violation here that was other than accidental.” In saying that, he doesn’t sound defensive or arrogant, merely resolute. I start to suspect that he’s a realist.

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