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UNC Chapel Hill's announcement Thursday that it is formally instituting a program to support former athletes who want to return to the university to finish their degrees may be well-intentioned, but misses the mark.
"Complete Carolina" will help student-athletes who left in good academic standing by offering access to financial support to help with tuition, books, fees, and room and board, that would be in line with their scholarships. UNC already has a pretty good track record of having athletes receive their degrees.
We fully support UNC in its mission to encourage not just athletes, but all students, to complete their degrees.
Complete Carolina again emphasizes athletics over academics, and goes further by creating a perk other students cannot access. Student-athletes often choose to leave, but the key word is "choose." While we are delighted that the university is encouraging these students to return, there needs to be careful consideration of the message it sends and the questions it raises.
How does this program translate for the non-athletic members of the student body? Do they view it as athletes getting special treatment for which more coordination-challenged members of the student body are not eligible? And is there any concern about providing this support for athletes but not for the students who are there just to focus on academics? If a student with a partial academic scholarship, for example, leaves because his or her parents can no longer afford to cover the rest of the college costs, would that student find available similar support if he or she were able to return to the university later? How can the cost of the program be justified in the current economic climate?
Athletes should not be entitled to special treatment. They sign on with full knowledge that classwork is going to be competing with time in the gym and time on the field or the court. Part of the college experience is learning how to juggle multiple responsibilities. Those run the gamut from students working full-time jobs to pay for school to students with very full social calendars to students involved in activities like marching band. All are time-consuming, worthwhile activities that add to the college experience.
And while Complete Carolina will help encourage former players to finish their degrees, perhaps, it does little to recalibrate the equation between academics and athletics. The friction between the two will remain until we acknowledge that some athletes are there to play and help generate money for universities or until we truly place academics ahead of athletics.