Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why Stuart Scott won

The last few days have been hard for Tar Heels. Longtime ESPN journalist Stuart Scott passed away Sunday morning after a seven-year battle with a rare form of cancer. He was 49. He is survived by his parents, siblings, girlfriend and two loving daughters.

The loss of Stu is not unique to those who share his alma mater. Stu belonged to sports fans of all colors, even the ugly, darker blue, because of what he did. He brought life to the joy and anguish of our fanatical existence, which is an enormous part of some of our lives.

I didn't grow up on SportsCenter like many of my peers. In fact, I didn't start to watch entire episodes until I went to Carolina in 2003. But well before I became a regular viewer, I knew who Stuart Scott was. I couldn't attribute it to him at the time, but my high school basketball teammates used to relive each other's highlights in the post-game locker room back in 1999.

"Boo-yah!" point guard Jason Epner would say while stroking the air with his eyes closed. "Just call him butter because he's on a roll!"

Playing sports was cool long before Stu arrived at ESPN in 1993, but talking about sports was no different from talking about the daily news. In 1992, you might have heard someone say "Did you see Jordan's dunk? That was fun to watch." Now you're more likely to hear "Did you see Jordan's dunk? He was breakin' off somethin' proper!" Stu made talking about sports cool.

And he did so in the face of criticism from people who could sense his charisma taking the sportscasting world away from the old guard. Even as a rookie reporter at ESPN, Stu held his ground while complimenting his forward-thinking peers in his columns. Stu worked for everyone, even middle-aged white guys, but he opened the door for sports fans who were young and creative.

Stu was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and began to disappear from his regular ESPN gigs. We heard that his cancer was tough, but we also heard he was tougher. He beat it, but it came back. Then he beat it again. Then it came back again. As sports fans, we felt his battle morph into a war, and the sports metaphors worked their way into our unwilling subconscious. Stu was fighting, and we wanted Stu to win. We hoped for a day when he would return to the desk as a permanent fixture in our daily lives.

I knew we had lost Stu, but I also couldn't shake the thought that Stu lost an unfair fight with cancer. Cancer had the brass knuckles all along, but we didn't know it for sure until this week. To give you some perspective, my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, and I am thankful that she has now been cancer free for years. I know the "beat cancer" story better than I ever thought I would. 

This past fall I enrolled in Notre Dame's full-time MBA program. As unsettling as it occasionally was to be a part of a rival institution of my alma mater, I also giddily awaited Carolina football's Oct. 11 appointment in South Bend. I hoped that Notre Dame would be 5-0 atop the rankings so we could spoil their season. I got my wish.

A couple days before the game, I went to the Grotto to light a candle and pray for a few things including the Heels. To my surprise, I didn't pray for a win. I prayed that Carolina would fight hard and make me proud in front of my new friends and classmates. I knew I could plan to have a great time with the many Carolina friends and family who were on their way, but I also knew that I couldn't control what seemed to be the most important thing to everyone: the outcome of the game. I didn't want to ask for too much.

Carolina's maligned defense earned an early 14-0 lead in what I describe as the third-most exciting five minutes of my life (I'm married, and I was at the 2004 Miami game). That and the rest of the game were an unforgettable experience shared with the people I love. We lost by the narrow margin of one possession. Carolina had fought hard. I walked out of Notre Dame Stadium disappointed but proud. I got exactly what I prayed for.

After Stu's passing, I watched a bunch of tribute videos and old broadcasts of his. For some reason I scrolled past his Jimmy V Perseverance Award acceptance speech. I think I wanted to see him at his professional best aside from his illness. But because his speech was at the top of any search results list, I eventually clicked on it and watched.

I discovered that in his last year, Stu came to understand that beating cancer wasn't about the length of his life as he had stated. Beating cancer was about how and why he lived. For him, that meant being with his daughters and training through mixed martial arts, the latter to prove to himself his own physical mettle. For each moment he did what he wanted to do with his life without regard to cancer, he won. He won and won and won.

The final score didn't matter.

I heard that message hours before last night's tip off between Carolina and Notre Dame. I didn't go to the Grotto this time because it is butt-cold in South Bend, but I'd be lying to you if I said the end result didn't hurt. I wanted the Heels to extend their pregame tribute to Stu for 40 minutes of determined basketball. I went to bed feeling like we lost a game we should have won not because our team deserved it but because Stu deserved it.

This morning I thought of what Stu would have said over last night's SportsCenter highlight reel if he was behind the desk. Despite his rooting heart, he would have been as cool as the other side of the pillow.

Tar Heel.

You are in our hearts, Stu.

Monday, May 12, 2014

I say 'college;' they say 'potato'

Sometimes I write something that adds little-to-no value to a story that already exists. Oops. This is one of those somethings, but you might laugh if you keep reading, have at least a small sense of humor regarding the Carolina scandal, and have not read The Daily Tar Heel in the past month.

The DTH published an article titled "Student-athletes weigh in on balancing academics, big-time college sports." Hearing the voices of student-athletes instead of administrators or journalists on this hot issue sounds refreshing, but sometimes you only get to hear from rehearsed guys like Marcus Paige who can successfully balance rigorous coursework and a sport.

I clicked on the link anyway, hoping that I might find something fresh and encouraging. Former Carolina football players Devon Ramsay and Mike Ingersoll gave me something so fresh that I laughed for the first time since the scandal broke eons ago.
In terms of academic-athletic balance, Ramsay said a football major might be helpful for student-athletes who are sure they want to go to the NFL.
“I think it would be OK for guys who know from the get-go that that’s what they want to do,” he said. “But I’m also nervous that some guys would feel pressured to do that major and really kind of lose the opportunity of a college education.”
Ingersoll also said he thinks there should be a program in college that prepares student-athletes for life in professional leagues.
“Careers in the NBA and NFL are some of the most unique and sought after careers in the world,” he said. “Why don’t you put (athletes) in classes about money earned, invested and owed?”
Ingersoll compared student athletes to students who go to college for other specialties, such as fine arts.
“Drama is a major for students who want to go on Broadway — why can’t I take classes for the NFL as far as managing money, dealing with the lifestyle and dealing with women,” he said.
Technically, I was a guy who knew from the get-go that he wanted to go to the NFL. The only thing I wanted more was to play football for the Tar Heels. Unfortunately, my physician told me that I was moderately underweight for my 73-inch frame at 165 pounds; he recommended milkshakes. Also, I had played football for a season when I was 13, and I sucked at it. Barring putting on a startling freshman hundred in pure muscle and suddenly being willing to get my pants dirty, playing football was something that evidently waited for me in heaven. In this life, I hope to one day earn an advanced Carolina degree just so I can come out of the tunnel at commencement. I would be the one running with a helmet and an American flag.

So I can't honestly say that I wish Carolina had a football major when I was there. I can understand that Carolina football players have always been many steps closer to the League than I was, but even the best of them have to temper their expectations of going pro because of injuries and developmental uncertainty. Besides, I have to state the obvious--do college football players really need more hours of football? They must really like football. One of my majors was mathematics; I could not have imagined putting in 40 extra hours per week for the UNC math team if it even existed. I guess I didn't really like math.

To their credit, these guys did give me an idea for a different new major at UNC: Teach For America Training. I joined TFA after my graduation and could have used a couple years of preparation--perhaps in the School of Education--instead of the five-week TFA summer institute. The TFA-Charlotte corps had five women for every man, so Mike Ingersoll, your lady issues speak to me. At least they did in the beginning. I am married to one of them, so maybe I built that plane while I flew it.

But to extend my extension of their suggestion lays bare the weakness of our arguments. Why not have a Google major at Carolina for students who want to work for Google? And you can't have a Google major without having an Apple major. If one employer like the NFL can influence a course of study at Carolina, maybe they all should. Then Carolina would be a corporate-driven training campus. Where would we put all the light and liberty?

If only Ingersoll knew that he could have enrolled in a number of money management courses at Carolina. Was he unaware that they existed? Did someone discourage him from enrolling in these courses? Were these sections closed to students who were not in the business school? These are hard questions for an unpaid blogger to answer.

Nevertheless, if the Ramsay-Ingersoll recommendations come to their fullest fruition, we would have to amend the football motto by addition: ANSWER THE BELL. LEARN NFL FOOTBALL. DEAL WITH WOMEN. Can you imagine the charm on the DEWW 110 professor?

OK, I'll stop with the sarcasm. I'm not siding with the NCAA cash cow, and I do think that college athletes are exploited. Specifically, I think it is a joke that many athletes gravitate to a couple atypical majors, and I recognize three causes: student-athletes who are unable to academically achieve in higher education regardless of their busy schedule, student-athletes who are willing to sacrifice their education for an easier-than-overtime path to graduation, and academic departments that are unwilling or unable to accommodate student-athletes' schedules. Carolina has put significant effort into fixing the first cause, but the others still need quite a bit of work.

College is college because it gives students the liberty to shed light on personally selected disciplines that will help them contribute to society later in life. Maybe football is one of those disciplines, but playing Division I football is more than enough preparation for whatever football might come after graduation. To his credit, Ramsay seemed to know this when he said those who would choose to major in football might "lose the opportunity of a college education." Ingersoll seemed a bit more lost.

But I have to admit I'm happy that they said what they said and that the DTH was right there to quote them so . . . warmly. It feels good to laugh while reading a story with a headline that includes the words student-athletes, academics and big-time college sports. I thought it might never happen.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Was Duke scared?

Official word to postpone tonight's 9 p.m. Carolina-Duke tilt came at 5:40 p.m. amid miserable winter weather conditions. Several initial reports incorrectly credited the weather as the sole reason for the postponement. Fortunately, Carolina Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham showed us a sliver of another reason.

"Duke's bus is not able to get to their campus to pick up the team in time to be able to make the trip to Chapel Hill, so we can't play this evening," he said. "The safety of the teams and officials is the number one priority, and this was the best decision to make at this time. Coach Williams, Coach Krzyzewski, (Duke AD) Kevin White and I will be on the phone with the ACC and will make a decision as to when to play the game as soon as possible."

ACC rules dictate that a game must be played if the officials and teams can get to the game safely. Fans are not considered in the rules, but it is true that upwards of 20,000 people will be safer without a game to attend tonight.

However, I can't not mention a few facts that, when paired with some reasonable assumptions, could tell an additional story.

Because driving was predicted to be dangerous around 8 p.m., Carolina planned to admit students to fill the empty seats of the ticket holders who would stay home. This happened twice before in the history of the Dean Dome, and the result was a student section so large that it filled pretty much the entire lower level and then some. Typically, alumni fill the seats that are closest to the court while students are dispersed in random sections throughout the arena. You can imagine the difference when you stack this deck with 10,000 wild cards. If I was an opposing player, I'd prefer the alumni in the front rows. I wonder which seating plan Duke prefers?

The officials were ready to go. ESPN had put its equipment in place more than 24 hours ahead of tip-off. Clearly, nearly everyone who was necessary to the execution and broadcast of the game was well aware of the conditions and planned accordingly. Everyone except, perhaps, the Blue Devils.

Duke's players had to attend their afternoon classes, you might say.

You'd be wrong. At 9:31 a.m. Duke canceled all classes effective at 12:50 p.m. The Duke athletic department had all morning to figure out how to get its team on the eight-mile ride to Chapel Hill eight hours before tip-off to avoid the expected weather complications. Instead, they either stuck with a departure time that was set last summer or were the victims of a lousy bus company. If they knew the bus would be late, they could have used any of a few hundred beat-up yellow school buses.

Cunningham got it right. Postponing the game was the best and only decision to make at the time of the decision. I just wonder what was going on over at Duke after 9:30 this morning.

From my comfortable couch in Asheville, it appeared that Duke was just plain scared.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My response to the CNN student-athlete literacy report

UNC posted a response to the CNN report shortly after I posted this. Please note the addendum at the bottom of this post.

This week CNN published a report on illiteracy among college student-athletes and, more specifically, among UNC-Chapel Hill student-athletes.

Former UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC men's basketball and football players from 2004 to 2012. She reported that 60 percent read between the fourth- and eighth-grade levels and 8-10 percent read at or below a third-grade level. That means 70 percent of revenue-sport Tar Heels were not ready to read college textbooks, which are written at a ninth-grade level according to CNN. The same report stated that 25 percent of revenue-sport Tar Heels would not have qualified to take classes at a community college.

CNN requested similar records from 37 public universities but received very little in return.

Arizona State, Rutgers and Michigan State denied CNN's request based on privacy laws. CNN has since appealed those decisions with no results to date. ASU was, however, happy to report that it employs one (!) learning specialist to work with all (!) of its student-athletes. Perhaps ASU felt good enough to report this after it discovered that Kentucky employs zero (!!) reading specialists for all of its student-athletes.

Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Utah, Michigan, Florida and Florida State all said they do not keep records of entrance exam scores or results of reading evaluations for athletes. Could we reasonably extrapolate that they don't keep records for any of their students? Athletes are students, after all.

Maryland never replied. South Carolina acknowledged receipt of the request but refused to respond.

Many other schools complied and responded with ACT and SAT data. In CNN's report, a college-literate test score was a reading ACT score at or above 16 or a reading SAT score at or above 400. Some of those schools used this standard to report a percentage of revenue-sport student-athletes who were not ready to read at the college level. Others reported their revenue-sport student-athlete ACT and SAT reading test averages next to either the averages of non-athlete admitted students or the averages of all admitted students. In short, these institutions reported that anywhere from 7 to 18 percent of their revenue-sport student-athletes read at the elementary level.

Most of the reporting schools came out better than Willingham's version of UNC. And given UNC's elite status among public universities, I can't imagine the unreported achievement gap between non-athletes and revenue-sport student-athletes would be a pretty thing to see.

As an educator and UNC alumnus, I am trying to digest this blizzard of information as objectively as possible. A few red flags, some in favor of UNC and some not, immediately come to mind.

I work for a North Carolina community college that sets higher standards for college literacy: at least an 18 on the ACT reading section or at least a 500 on the SAT reading section. Again, these are the standards for a community college in North Carolina. Admitted students who don't test as college literate have to take a separate placement test that forces them to enroll in one, two or three sequential, no-credit, developmental courses. I was surprised to find that CNN's standards for literacy at major research institutions were so much lower. It is unclear whether Willingham's reported 25 percent of Tar Heels that could not qualify for classes at a community college came from the 16/400 standards or the 18/500 standards. I suspect it came from the 18/500 since my employer and UNC both exist in North Carolina.

I cannot fathom that so many major research institutions do not keep records of their students' ACT and SAT test records. I know they require each applicant to provide scores before granting admission, so their statement leads me to believe either that they destroy the data upon admission or that they are lying to protect their student-athletes' privacy. But why didn't they just say they were protecting their students' privacy? They would have sounded more competent if they did.

I don't know the exact numbers, but I know a team of people is dedicated to meeting UNC student-athletes wherever they are and improving their academic abilities. As everyone knows, at least one of those people went rogue and broke the rules, and a professor and department chair did the same. We paid for it as an institution, and the athletes involved will suffer as a result for who knows how many years. Despite these missteps, UNC has maintained a commitment to giving all its student-athletes resources that other universities apparently do not.

CNN's statistical reporting was bad enough that I, an educator with a journalism and mathematics degree, do not understand the facts behind Willingham's numbers. Why does the report state that 25 percent of Tar Heels weren't ready for community college coursework while 70 percent of Tar Heels weren't ready to read on a college level? Further, CNN reported reading scores while omitting math scores, something annoyingly negligent but also unfortunately American.

I do not mean for these criticisms to undermine the larger purpose of CNN's report. The United States has perhaps the most advanced higher education system in the world paired with a disappointing secondary education system to feed it. Combine these with the big-money machine that charges $60 to go to a football game, and you wind up with some academically unprepared college student-athletes.

Some say that it simply isn't fair for an underachieving male student who excels at either of two sports to take the spot of the best student of either sex that UNC does not admit. Others would expand that to say it might not be fair for an underachieving student of either sex who excels at any sport to take the spot of the best unaccepted student. I'm not sure which statement is closer to the reality. Any college sports fan with a bachelor's degree has considered these matters of fairness. I know I have. It is a crisis of conscience and economics, and we have to have a conversation about it.

A few UNC fans say that the University is unfairly at the forefront of these conversations. They say that other universities seem to handle these issues better by staying out of the spotlight and keeping their players eligible. This stuff happens nearly everywhere else, you have heard your friends say. Why does the media always target us?

I think the media targets us because we are the nation's first public university and one that "with lux, libertas - light and liberty - as its founding principles, [charts] a bold course of leading change to improve society and to help solve the world's greatest problems."

Yes, that is the end of UNC's mission statement. It's just a mission statement, you might say, and you'd be right. Not all mission statements mean something, but ours does. That's why I pause every time I see UNC as the poster child for what is happening at universities across the country. We are leading this conversation. Our faculty, students and alumni are the ones writing critical letters to The Daily Tar Heel because we know that when we lead our university to a better day, others will follow.

Addendum: UNC also posted a response to the CNN report shortly after I posted mine. I agree with its first point, that Willingham's emphasis of a couple student-athletes' inability to read and write is an unfair representation of the majority of Tar Heel student-athletes. These alleged case examples are too statistically insignificant to merit Willingham's and CNN's condescending detail. If all but one Tar Heel can sound out "Wisconsin," then it is inappropriate to mention that one could not near the lead of the story.

Willingham has not met the University's request for the data that supported her statistical claims. She should. I certainly hope that she simply hasn't had time but will do so in the very near future.

UNC stated that "a subcommittee . . . established guidelines and procedures for the admission of student-athletes and other students with special talent." It would be informative for UNC to add an explanation of at least some of those guidelines and procedures on the page.