I take a look at three reform-minded athletics reports and find a few (very few) good ideas.

In a recent article for the Pope Center, I looked at the latest academic-athletic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill in light of athletes’ academic preparation. Various reformers have tried to end such scandals by combating cheating and helping balance athletics and academics. But in order for reforms to work, they must be clear, enforceable, and they must remove universities’ incentives to cheat.

Which solutions will work to prevent the kind of academic-athletic scandal seen at UNC-Chapel Hill? And what about other kinds of cheating?

I reviewed three reports on athletics made in the past few years to find recommendations that will be effective if they can be implemented. In August 2013, a panel commissioned by then-chancellor Holden Thorp and chaired by AAU president Hunter Rawlings offered 28 recommendations for UNC-Chapel Hill and other big sports schools.

In 2010, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group established in 1989, outlined three recommendations to the NCAA in its report, “Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values, and the Future of College Sports.”

And the Drake Group, a national faculty group which works towards “academic integrity in college sport” offers its own list of seven reforms—which Mary Willingham champions on her website.

The Pointless

Many of the recommended reforms are vague, difficult to implement, or impossible to enforce. It’s unlikely that these reforms would make any difference to “business as usual” in athletics departments.

And some of them might even strengthen students and universities’ incentives to cheat. Specifically:

The Rawlings Commission recommends insuring that academic support staff and compliance staff operate independently and without any “undue influence” by athletics officials—the definition of which is unclear.

The Knight Commission recommends strengthening eligibility standards for participation in championships, by requiring that a team be “on track to graduate at least 50 percent of its players to be eligible for postseason championships.” Such a requirement might put an end to one-and-done programs. And ideally, it would encourage schools to recruit better students. But in reality, it would increase schools’ incentives to provide illegal tutoring, fraudulent classes, and special help for athletes. It would also drive athletes towards easy classes and programs with little academic merit.

The Drake Group recommends that students be required to “maintain a grade point average of 2.0, determined each semester, to continue participation in intercollegiate athletics each semester.” But that requirement simply puts more pressure on students and teams to keep athletes eligible, keeping cheating profitable and making it more likely.

The answer isn’t simply to raise standards that currently can’t be enforced, it’s to find new standards that make sense.

The Promising

Some recommendations show promise, including suggestions that university athletics become more transparent.

The Rawlings report recommends transparency:  “UNC-CH should make institutional financial data more transparent to the public by publishing NCAA financial reports; the athletics department budget…and additional financial data about long-term athletics debt and rates of change in athletics and academic spending.”

The Knight Commission agrees, and goes further, recommending that all NCAA financial reports are public. These reports, which include information on athletic spending and revenue, could provide watchdogs with “smoking guns” on where athletic departments spend their money. However, if misdeeds are occurring in academic departments (as they were at UNC-Chapel Hill), such reports might not be helpful. As Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is…the best of disinfectants.” But it isn’t usually the most direct way to address problems.

Carolina has found one kind of transparency that might work—and work quickly. In the fall of 2012, the university began to use “contextual grading”; that is, reporting not just what the individual student earned in a course, but also what the class average was, thereby providing the “context” for the grade. If administrators keep an eye on classes where the average is always an A, they should be able to spot which ones are frauds.

Another way to realign universities’ priorities is to alter revenue distribution formulas to “prioritize educational values over winning,” also recommended by the Knight Commission. The 2010 report notes, “The current NCAA revenue distribution formula rewards men’s basketball teams on the basis of appearances and wins in the NCAA men’s basketball postseason tournaments. The allocation vehicle for these revenues, known as the Men’s Basketball Fund, distributed $167 million in 2010.” As such, the formula puts a great deal of pressure on teams to recruit talented athletes instead of promising students.

Deemphasizing winning is a good idea, but universities might still be tempted to have their cake and eat it too by fudging graduation rates and other measures of academic success while continuing to recruit unprepared athletes. How the NCAA defines “educational values” will determine whether this reform has any teeth.

Beginning in fall 2014, 10 percent of the revenue from newly created football playoffs will be tied to teams’ Academic Progress Rates (APR). Unfortunately, APR (a team-based metric that accounts for the eligibility and retention of each student-athlete, each term) is easily manipulated. Unless a different standard is used, this “reform” will likely create new problems or simply mask old ones. Moreover, ticket sales dwarf post-season revenue distribution—and winning teams sell more tickets.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

A few of the reforms suggested by the Drake Group, the Knight Commission, and the Rawlings panel could create immediate and lasting change in college sports—if institutions or conferences have the will to implement them.

The Drake Group recommends that schools limit eligibility for freshmen, either by requiring one year in residency before an athlete can participate in intercollegiate athletics or by not allowing freshman eligibility for “athletes whose high school grade point average and/or standardized test scores fall outside of one standard deviation of the mean academic profile of the student body of the certifying institution.” Either measure would put more focus—and less pressure—on the academic duties of student-athletes.

A faculty committee at UNC-Chapel Hill is also addressing academic standards. The Faculty Committee on Special Talent establishes admissions procedures for students with extraordinary talent in athletics, dramatic art and music. For the 2013 entering first-year class, 14 prospective student-athletes required review by the committee—less than half the number from a decade ago. A good start, but as I explained in my last article, that number should be zero.

The Drake Group also supports “faculty rules to protect faculty and other university employees who disclose unethical behavior related to collegiate athletic programs.” If implemented, such rules would protect whistle blowers from official university sanctions.

Another controversial suggestion from the Drake Group is to require university policies to “ensure that athletic contests are scheduled so as to not conflict with class attendance and minimize travel.” If implemented and enforced, such a policy would substantially restrict the number of games and type of games a team plays. Midweek games would be a thing of the past. Athletics would return to its regional roots. And the potential profit would substantially decrease.

Similarly, the Knight Commission recommends reducing both the length of each sports season and the number of events. The report points out, “Ever-lengthening sports seasons have a corrosive effect on student-athletes’ ability to focus on academics and also drive up costs substantially.” Carolina’s 2013-14 basketball schedule began on November 1 and ran through at least March 23—a very long time for students to try to split their focus between sports and academics.


No athletics reform is a silver bullet. Short of ending intercollegiate athletics programs altogether, there is no easy way to put an end to all cheating. The incentives that accompany the prestige and money associated with winning teams are too strong to eliminate entirely.

UNC-Chapel Hill has instituted a number of reforms that will certainly eliminate one particular kind of cheating—“no show” classes. The university has centralized the student record and tracking database, has begun conducting random classroom checks, and has instituted new instructions for structuring course syllabi. The College of Arts and Sciences has instituted further reforms. Those changes will prevent classes from being taught “on paper only” at Carolina—and at any other school that adopts Carolina’s new standards.

But new methods of cheating will arise as long as athletes are asked to do the impossible: be full-time students and full-time players.

To ameliorate this problem, adjustments must be made on both sides of the scale. Playing on an intercollegiate team must become less onerous and athletes must enter the university more prepared.

A combination of the reforms suggested by the Drake Group, the Knight Commission, the Hunter Rawlings panel, and those already underway at Carolina can address the imbalance. But universities must find the political will to implement them.

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series. The first article, found here, examined the academic-athletics scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill.)