A Unique Opportunity for Athletics Reform

Many colleges are setting up their student-athletes for failure. Whether one looks to the long-term neurological health risks that young athletes are subject to, or the myriad cases of academic dishonesty within athletics departments, it appears that the personal and academic well-being of student-athletes is often compromised for the sake of “the game.”

Fortunately, the North Carolina legislature is taking a close look at how to improve colleges’ treatment of student-athletes. Over the summer, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill that established a Legislative Commission on the Fair Treatment of Student-Athletes. The commission is chaired by lieutenant governor Dan Forest and will have six meetings before it recommends legislation. Two meetings have already been held.

During the first meeting on October 3, the commission discussed how athletes’ medical needs are—or aren’t—covered after a sports-related injury.

The commission’s second meeting on November 8 dealt with whether academics and athletics are compatible—a highly contested issue of late, especially after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s infamous athletics-academic scandal that became a six-year saga.

For its part, the Martin Center has had several long-standing recommendations for college athletics reform that could strengthen the commission’s recommendations.


Stop Issuing Academic Waivers

First, the Martin Center recommends that colleges and universities stop issuing academic waivers for student-athletes who do not meet minimal academic admission standards.

In the 2016-2017 academic year, 4.3 percent of UNC system student-athletes received academic waivers. The minimum admissions requirements for all UNC institutions is an 880 new SAT score and a 2.5 cumulative GPA. That means that the 54 student-athletes who received waivers scored below the minimum requirements. And those are just minimum system-wide requirements: that same year, the average score of accepted students at one of the system’s most athletically competitive schools, UNC-Chapel Hill, was 1381 on the SAT and a 4.66 GPA.

At the same time, student-athletes’ academic schedule is severely restricted by their athletic time requirements. From practices, training, and competition, the average student-athlete dedicates about 40 hours a week to their sport—a time commitment equivalent to a full-time job! It is absurd to expect students who are already dramatically behind the academic average to catch up while sustaining such a schedule.


Eliminate Athletic Scholarships

The Martin Center also recommends the elimination of athletic scholarships because they perversely incentivize students to put their sport before their studies.

In many cases, athletic scholarships expire and must be renewed on an annual basis. And the coach usually decides whether or not to renew a student-athlete’s scholarship—which covers tuition, room, board, and other related expenses. This power imbalance puts a great deal of pressure on student-athletes who must meet their coach’s standards of athletic performance to keep their athletic scholarshipwhile maintaining academic eligibility.

But simply requiring student-athletes to maintain a certain GPA is not enough to ensure that their studies remain a top priority. Students find ways to keep their heads above water while still putting academics on the back burner. Indeed, student-athletes are known to be encouraged to cut corners. One dramatic example is UNC-Chapel Hill’s athletics scandal where a disproportionately high number of student-athletes were funneled into fake “paper classes” to boost their grades.

Further proof of the incompatibility of academics with college athletics—particularly in high-revenue sports such as football and basketball—can be found in students’ own experiences. Just ask former football player Davis Winkie. Winkie, now a second-year history PhD student at UNC-Chapel Hill, played for Vanderbilt University from 2014 to 2016. On November 8, Winkie gave a presentation before the legislative committee about his student-athlete experience.

In many respects, Winkie is not a typical student-athlete. For one, he pictured himself as a student first and an athlete second at Vanderbilt. And he said he was “dead set” on majoring in history and classics—not among the majors that student-athletes tend to choose, such as communications or exercise and sports science. Yet, even though Winkie was a driven student, he recalled how he was unable to sign up for morning classes and attend office hours because of his practice schedule. Winkie emphasized that student-athletes are under intense pressure to neglect academics and said that coaches “pay lip service” to academics but “constantly remind players who pay the bills.”


Limit Time Required for Athletic Activity

According to NCAA bylaws, student-athletes are limited to 20 hours a week of “countable athletically-related activity” such as practice, competition, and strength training. However, the 20-hour limit only applies during the season, not before. Furthermore, team travel doesn’t count toward those 20 hours—even though traveling is a large time commitment that steals from athletes’ study and class time.

And even though existing rules limit the amount of time that athletes can dedicate to athletics, given the intense pressures that athletes are under, it is quite possible that students spend an excessive amount of time training and practicing anyway. Not only that, but there is often limited oversight to ensure that coaches and trainers respect mandated restraints on athletes’ time.

As such, some of the Martin Center’s recommendations include:

  • A full enforcement—by means of greater oversight—of the 20 hours per week limitation on athletic activities when classes are in-session
  • No competition scheduled during final examination periods
  • Adoption of institutional policies by faculty senates approving the maximum percentage of classes that may be missed due to scheduled athletic competitions and prohibiting the athletic department from requiring that athletes select majors or course schedules that are compatible with athletic practices, meetings, or competitions


College Athletes Right to Know Act

The Martin Center also recommends that all states adopt legislation based on the College Athletes Right to Know Act. The act was first signed into law in California by governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on September 30, 2010, and requires coaches and recruiters to “disclose their institutional and the NCAA’s policies regarding medical expenses, scholarship renewals, and transfers to other institutions.” Only Connecticut has followed California and adopted this legislation.

According to Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA athlete and director of the National College Players’ Association, young high school students decide which college to attend “based on false information given to them by athletic recruiters.” He continued:

As a result, most recruits and their parents have no idea that colleges can leave them with sports-related medical expenses, take away their scholarship for any reason, leave them with tens of thousands of dollars in educational-related expenses, and hold their eligibility and scholarship opportunities hostage when they try to transfer schools.

Passing legislation similar to the College Athletes Right to Know Act would give parents and students critical information, enabling them to make the best decision possible.



The current college athletics culture places a disproportionate emphasis on athletic success—over academic success. Even if that emphasis is unintentional, the current inflexible demands on athletes’ time, and the pressures involved with maintaining eligibility for athletic scholarship renewal, put athletes in a nearly impossible position.

The North Carolina legislature has an important opportunity to reverse a great deal of the abuses that college athletes suffer through its legislative commission. If they seize the opportunity, they can reaffirm the primary purpose of colleges and universities: education.

Shannon Watkins is a policy associate at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.