An Athletic Dilemma

It’s an ages-old question—one as old as the athletic scholarship itself: are college athletes on scholarship primarily students, bound by the same rules and driven by the same motivations as their classmates? Or are they more like hired mercenaries, brought in to do a specific job of great value to the university, and students second—or perhaps not at all?

Universities will surely claim that athletes are indeed students first, but their behavior often suggests otherwise. The failure to make the distinction clear, and to act accordingly, hurts higher education’s credibility.

Two recent newspaper investigations indicate that, in the two major revenue-producing sports of men’s basketball and football, the classroom is not the players’ strong suit. The evidence presented by the Atlanta Constitution-Journal (Dec. 27, 2008), concerning SAT scores and graduation rates, combined with a November USA Today article about student-athletes’ choices of majors, suggests that many of the nation’s universities are complicit in a system that is basically unethical—students are admitted with credentials that do not even begin to approach the standards of other students, they are directed toward meaningless courses, and they either do not graduate or they receive degrees with little value.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution report compared SAT scores of regular students, all athletes, and athletes in men’s basketball and football at 54 of the most athletically competitive major public colleges. The newspaper found that “nationwide, football players average 220 points lower on the SAT than their classmates — and men’s basketball players average seven points less than football players.” Other male athletes had, on average, SATs that were 115 higher than those of football players, and female athletes averaged scored 147 points more.

The two schools that will play for the national football championship on January 8 demonstrate that winning comes with a willingness to lower standards. At the University of Florida, entering freshmen for the 2001-02 school year averaged a combined 1236 on their math and reading SAT scores (out of a maximum of 1600). Entering football players, however, averaged 890. At the University of Oklahoma, the numbers were 1158 and 920.

The same article also stated that while all athletes have a higher graduation rate than all students (66 percent to 64 percent within a six-year period), football players graduate only 56 percent of the time, and male basketball players graduate at a dismal 49 percent rate.

The USA Today article in November revealed that the recruiting policies are just the beginning. Scholarship athletes tend to choose their college majors so that they get the best grades for the least work—they “major in eligibility.” This is not a new phenomenon for athletes. At a recent Pope Center conference on athletics in higher education, Bill Thierfelder, the president of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, used the exact same phrase to describe his academic career at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s, when he was the national high jump champion. He said that he, too, “majored in eligibility.”

USA Today looked at 142 Division I schools and found that athletes tend to “cluster” with their teammates in easy majors, often in the social sciences, that offer little value after graduation. The article suggested this is hardly a coincidence: it quoted one former Kansas State University football player as saying “the athletics academics advisors said ‘this is what everybody is doing. It’s the easiest major.’”

A former Boise State University football player said, “You hear which majors, and which classes, are the easiest and you take them. You’re going to school so you can stay in sports. You’re not going for a degree…It’s a joke.”

The Journal-Constitution quoted Murray Sperber, a former University of Indiana professor and the author of several books on college sports. He said “there’s a huge world of Mickey Mouse courses and special curriculums that athletes are steered into. The problem is there are many athletes graduating from schools who are semiliterate.”

In one outrageous example, in 2004, an assistant men’s basketball coach (also the son of the head coach) at the University of Georgia taught a course taken by many players called “Coaching Principles and Strategy of Basketball.” The final exam consisted of questions such as: “How many goals are on a basketball court? How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game? Diagram the half-court line.”

Most programs avoid demonstrating such open contempt for academics, but the whole system seems to work on a giant collaborative wink—as if administrators were saying in unison: “they (the athletes) aren’t qualified to succeed academically at our school, but we pretend to teach them, they pretend to learn, and we don’t have to pay them much. And they give us the publicity we crave.”

It was once believed that money was driving the system, but the work of Sperber and others has revealed that few athletic programs actually make money.

At the November Pope Center conference, participants cited some other basic reasons why universities are willing to overlook the ethical dilemmas posed by big-time sports. One is that such athletic events intrinsically get spectators to pick a side, and since students naturally side with their own school, sports rapidly form a bond of allegiance among the former strangers who are new to the school.

But perhaps the main reason why administrators are willing to sacrifice their school’s integrity is that athletic teams have great “marketing value” for schools seeking teenage applicants, according to Harry Lewis, a former dean of the Harvard University undergraduate college.

Major reform from the governing body of major college sports, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), is unlikely, since it is subject to the wishes of its funding members—the colleges themselves. It has attempted to establish standards for minimum SATs. However, the original standard of 700 points (which was changed to 820 because of changes to the tests) was attacked for a long time by detractors who said it was too high and unfairly excluded black athletes who came from inadequate high schools. In response to this criticism, the NCAA moved to a sliding scale, where weak SAT scores can be offset by high grades. For instance, an athlete with a 2.5 grade point average (GPA) in high school must get 820 SATs, but if he has a 3.0 GPA, he only needs a 620 test score.

Most college athletes far exceed these standards. The majority are not on full scholarship, but play for the love of the sport and of competition. And even the most heralded football and basketball teams include actual scholar-athletes, sometimes with credentials as good or better than the rest of the student body. There are also young men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds who take advantage of the opportunity to study at a school they would not ordinarily be able to attend.

To focus on such successes, however, is to deny the existence of the problem—many athletes simply do not belong on their campuses. Much of their learning is at the remedial level—a situation that should not be part of a flagship state university or a prestigious private school. Some athletes who could do well academically are funneled into similar levels of mediocrity, in order to concentrate their time and effort on their sport.

These athletes have a curious life—as “pretend” students, they are, at the same time, pampered and admired for their athletic abilities, yet secretly condemned and belittled for their lack of academic prowess. They know they can’t (or won’t) compete in the classroom, and the rest of the university community knows it, and that sets them apart.

And their presence is not always benign. Their stay is at the expense of other students, who subsidize the athletic program with higher tuition, or of taxpayers. The gaming that goes on to ensure their admission and eligibility is a corrupting influence, and they can detract from the intellectual atmosphere of the campus. They are also physically imposing, aggressive, and sometimes antagonistic to the general student population. In one case of an athletic program run amok, between 1997 and 2004, nine women at the University of Colorado filed charges sexual assault charges against football players and recruits.

Still, despite the obvious problems, a lot of people, many influential, prefer things just the way they are: administrators, sports fans, (some) students and alumni, local boosters, politicians and so on. More schools are trying to get on the big-time sports bandwagon. Here in North Carolina, N.C. Central University left its Divison II conference of historically black colleges in 2007 to join the big-time in Division I. UNC-Charlotte recently chose to begin the process of developing a football team for the first time—one that will also compete in Division I.

At the Pope Center conference, different paths to reform were proposed. Thierfelder discussed his national campaign to convince each coach, each administrator and each athlete, one at a time if necessary, that athletics serves a higher purpose than winning and money. Sperber countered that the college athletics system must confronted and combated. Others held out hope that economic pressures will reduce the focus on college sports in general.

Another alternative is to “spin-off” the major athletic teams, in much the way that professors are able to “spin-off” their research with profit potential from university-owned laboratories into private companies. The teams could retain the “university brand,” keeping the allegiance of students and alumni, but be separate, profit-seeking entities that can serve the interests of all constituencies better. Schools could still get the publicity they desire without compromising admissions and academic standards. Athletes, if they so chose, could be paid as the revenue-producing individuals they are, in line with other second-tier professional sports. There could also be an agreement to educate willing athletes who are ready for the rigors of college study.

Yet no reform will occur until a majority of the university administrations agree they need to change. Until then, schools are going to submit to the pressure to field competitive teams for the sake of publicity and recognition, even as it compromises the integrity of their mission.