By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Thousands of students, mostly athletes, taking sham classes over the course of almost two decades, many graduating with a coveted degree from the University of North Carolina. Dirty professors running a shadow curriculum to retain eligibility for basketball and football players and more, accompanied by all the conveniently unaware coaches.
This is the kind of stuff that just a few years ago would feed multiple news cycles of sports coverage and beyond, spawning endless hot takes and bilious TV debates and finger-wagging missives from sanctimonious editorial boards as the aftershocks rumbled on.
But both the timing and scale of this story have combined, somewhat counter-intuitively, to render it something less than earth-shattering. We skim the familiar facts, note some names and get back to pecking at our phones for fantasy football injury updates. The underlying reasons for this are multiple, and clear.
First and foremost is a doddering NCAA on its last legs of existence, exposed as the superfluous cash cartel it long has been. In both actual court and that of widespread public opinion, the controlling body of collegiate athletics has seen near total dissipation of its authority, to the point that the mere term "student-athlete" elicits a chuckle, with its Orwellian irony now so obvious.
With the once-powerful bureaucracy crumbling in its ability and desire to enforce antiquated policies, our view of such institutional transgressions has been permanently altered. The bad guy looks better when the good guy looks worse.
Our own personal experiences inform the reaction as well. Anyone attending a big school with big sports knew that the seven-footer in the back row of that crowded freshman poli-sci lecture probably wasn't there on academic merit alone, and we didn't care as long as he ran the floor and defended the rim. Those of us at Duke in the heyday of Final Fours and national titles didn't care about that odd tendency for ballers to gravitate to the same major, not worrying about the coincidence that so many tall kids were apparently fascinated by sociology. And his degree from his watered-down classroom experience would have no effect on the value of mine from a different set of standards. We know why he's there, and more power to him.
Also influencing our feelings is the fact that any college sports scandal after Penn State will seem like business as usual. Nothing ever can approach the horror and depravity of a sainted coach knowingly allowing a child rapist to use a storied football program to help him cultivate victims, exemplifying the awful depths to which a school would go to protect images, all in the name of a game. When the epitome of rectitude is revealed to be rotten to its core, there's no going back to a pristine, previous time. No-show classes and fraudulent term papers can never resonate the same way again after the searing testimony from violently scarred children, who were failed by coaches, administrators, campus police and the cult of worshipful, willfully blind fans.
Our changing view of the relative value of a college degree in general may also contribute to muted outrage. In a globalized economy more unequal and fragmented than ever, a degree from even a prestigious school doesn't seem to mean what it did years ago, when graduation meant a step on a set path to a job and a career and a stable future. We all have anecdotal evidence readily at hand of someone underemployed and saddled with debt after achieving the dream of college, scrambling to find a foothold on a path to something.
So we can only get so angry, anymore, even for something seemingly so big and so important. We know too much. We have seen too much.
Athletes taking advantage of a corrupt system isn't the new normal, it's just the normal, same as it ever was. And the more we learn about their exploitation by the schools and the indefensible NCAA, the more sympathetic they become.
If UNC athletes weren't there for the education in the first place, there's no point being mad that they didn't get one.
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