Forfeiting Education: Sports and Collegiate Culture

Madison Iszler

It’s no secret that college sports are a revenue windfall for both colleges and universities and the NCAA. Athletics has become a lucrative department, especially for schools with Division I teams. Every year colleges rake in millions of dollars, deriving the bulk of the revenue from ticket sales and donations, not to mention TV contracts, merchandise sales, and much more. In 2013, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament produced $1.15 billion in television ads, far exceeding the profit produced by the NFL and NBA playoffs. Every year ESPN dishes out more than $150 million for the rights to broadcast all five BCS bowl games.

It’s also no secret that many, if not most, college athletes receive academic benefits and special privileges of varying kinds. Yet, if you were to ask an average college student about these advantages, you’d likely receive a shrug of the shoulders and a slightly perturbed but largely indifferent attitude in response. These bonuses have become an accepted part of what being a student athlete entails at higher-ed institutions, but more recently they have begun to rise to the surface.

Several months after a report was released detailing special privileges, including excessive grade changes and phony classes, granted to student athletes at the University of North Carolina, the school and the NCAA are being sued by two former athletes accusing the university of “academic fraud and failing to fulfill their stated missions of educating athletes,” according to the New York Times. In the filing, Michael Hausfeld, the lawyer of one of the athletes suing UNC, noted several NCAA policies that subvert academics, “including a requirement that universities report grades for entire teams, potentially allowing teams to hide individual athletes’ lack of progress” and declaring the 20-hour rule, which is intended to restrict sports participation to 20 hours per week, quixotic and improbable. The earlier report, prepared by Kenneth L. Wainstein, divulged that UNC football players (and others) had received A’s and B’s in nonexistent classes, part of what the New York Times termed “a ‘shadow curriculum’ designed to help struggling students — many of them Tar Heels athletes — stay afloat.” Academic administrators were charged with assigning grades based on students’ potential to remain eligible for sports programs and negotiating grades with coaches. During the 18-year scandal, according to the Times, “More than 3,100 students, 47.6 percent of them athletes, were enrolled in and received credit for the phantom classes.”

Yet although this public disgrace is unprecedented in its extent, it is not the first of its kind. At least 20 basketball players at the University of Minnesota were found to have had over 400 pieces of coursework, including tests, done for them by an office manager and tutor from 1993-1998. In 2002, the head coach of Georgia University’s basketball team, Jim Harrick, and his son, Jim Jr., were charged with assigning fraudulent grades to players in classes they rarely attended. In 2009, 61 athletes at Florida State University were charged with academic fraud violations, including work done for them by a professor, an academic advisor, and a learning specialist. Additionally, following the UNC scandal the NCAA announced that it will be investigating accusations of academic dereliction on 20 college campuses, 18 of which are Division I institutions. While the NCAA has not disclosed the names of the colleges or specific information regarding the allegations, they include student athletes receiving inappropriate privileges from professors and academic advisors, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

These scandals highlight systemic problems with the NCAA and collegiate athletic programs. In a November 2014 article for Inside Higher Ed, Allen Sack, a professor of sports management at the University of New Haven, writes, "Cheating scandals such as the one at the University of North Carolina are not limited to a few rogue universities…On the contrary, violations of academic integrity are to be expected in a system that requires athletes to give so much time and attention to sports that an army of academic counselors is needed to keep athletes eligible."

On the students’ side, too much is required of student athletes. In 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University are employees of the university and therefore able to be represented by a union. According to CNN, “players…spend more time on football than most other students spend on a part-time job.” Players’ orientation week includes 14-hour days, which increase to 50-60 hours per week as the season draws closer, and decrease to 40-50 hours per week once the academic semester and season kick off. And this does not include summer or holiday practices. According to the NLRB report, the total number of hours players spent on sports-related activities was “1,750 hours a year–an average of 36 hours a week for what is considered extra curricular.” With such a schedule, academic pursuits tend to fall by the wayside. The possibility of obtaining grades high enough to maintain eligibility for sports programs while submitting little to no appropriately-difficult work is tempting, considering the hard work, understanding of material, attention to detail, and discipline earning a degree usually entails and the pressing physical and mental demands of being an athlete.

On the institutions’ side, colleges and universities have motivation to enroll students in phony classes, change grades to ensure students’ eligibility for athletic programs, and lower academic standards because doing so allows students to remain in school and ensures that sports programs continue to expand and flourish. Taking away too much time from sports may cost colleges or universities big games - and a lot of money. In an interview with SBNation, Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback and a Stanford University graduate, spoke out strongly against the NCAA. In reference to the sports scholarships that the NCAA doles out to various athletes, Sherman said, “People think, ‘Oh, you're on scholarship.’ They pay for your room and board, they pay for your education, but to their knowledge, you're there to play football. You're not on scholarship for school and it sounds crazy when a student-athlete says that, but  those are the things coaches tell them every day: ‘You're not on scholarship for school.’” Continuing, he said, “I think there are very few schools that actually care about the players.” By providing student athletes with shortcuts along the route to attaining a degree, professors, administrators, coaches, counselors, and the like are cheating students of the mental and emotional growth they could be experiencing as college students.

Both those who enable and those who commit academic fraud raise the question: what is the purpose of college? For many student athletes, it may be the opportunity to further professional sports aspirations or garner an impressive collegiate athletic career. For others, attending college on athletic scholarships may be the only chance they have of obtaining a degree, not being able to afford it otherwise. For administrators and faculty members, it may be using student athletes to bring more funding to colleges and universities. In any of these cases, the culture of higher education is terribly misguided.

In a 2009 article, Wood identifies what he calls the “four horses,” or the four aims, of education: “The pursuit of truth through systematic inquiry,” “the transmission of cultural and civilizational heritage to a rising generation,” “the practical preparation of students to work in fields that require advanced study,” and “insistence on shaping students’ minds and character toward an ideal of the educated person.” In instances of academic fraud, it can be argued that all four aims are being sabotaged, but especially the third and fourth ones. Some would argue that a devotion to athletics over academics is preparing students for the work force, should they go on to work in the field of professional athletics. While it is important to equip students with the skills and tools necessary for profitable employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker currently holds ten different jobs before age forty, and most professional athletes do not remain in the world of professional sports for very long because of the physical, mental and emotional demands. Students must know how to learn, adapt to, and interact with a myriad of cultures, acquire information, and think critically. In a global economy such as ours, knowledge of the wider world of history, science, philosophy, economics, and further areas and the ability to weigh competing arguments on their merits and make wise, informed decisions is crucial.

In college, students establish the intellectual foundation that they can apply to any field or occupation, regardless of its specifics. Getting a well-rounded education and gaining a body of knowledge furnishes students with a robust foundation that will hold in any profession. It is much easier to learn the specifics of a certain profession than it is to thoroughly evaluate both sides of an argument or to come up with a creative solution to a problem. In the case of student athletes, by focusing primarily on athletic pursuits and funneling students into easier degree programs or assigning unearned grades, institutions are preparing them for the post-college world in too narrow a manner. The average career length is about 3.3 years for NFL players, 4.5 years for NBA players, and 5.6 years for MLB players. Should student athletes make it to the professional sports arena, their careers will likely be short-lived and they will need to find another occupation. The lack of a solid academic foundation will make acclimating to and performing in other career fields much more difficult.

There is no easy fix to this problem. The answer does not seem to be to do away with college sports, which are in and of themselves not negative pursuits. Sports aid with character development, require working as part of a team, and foster strong mentoring relationships between coaches and athletes. They provide enjoyment, camaraderie, entertainment, and an opportunity to show school spirit to spectators and fans and bring funding and fame to colleges and universities. In an ideal world, colleges, universities and student athletes would reflect on these ethical choices and act in accordance with the goals of higher education. However, because of the lack of incentive to change, perhaps colleges and universities should remove the “student” part of the title and remove these individuals from the sphere of academia. Instead, they should be paid for their work as employees of the school. If athletes do not fully participate and perform as students by submitting their own work and earning grades honestly and fairly, they are not acting as students and should not be treated as such. Such a solution would enable the maintenance of athletic programs, keep revenue from sports flowing into colleges, and eradicate the potential of public humiliation and ethical failure of academic fraud among student athletes and administrations.

College is about intellectual hard work. It is an opportunity to rise to challenges. It is for learning how to think carefully, write winsomely, and speak cogently. It is priming for a world that requires diligent analysis of difficult problems and creation of effective corresponding solutions. It is for achieving autonomy from home and parents and becoming a responsible, productive, self-directed member of society. It is for reasoning on the basis of proof, fostering intellectual curiosity, and much more. In essence, the purpose of college is to make students lifelong learners. When colleges and universities allow student athletes to take hollowed-out courses and get easy A’s, they are doing more than treating certain students unfairly or cheating student athletes of the full college experience. They - and the students who choose this route - are forfeiting the true value of a higher education.

Image: Baltimore Fishbowl

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