One of the biggest scams ever foisted on the American public is the concept of the student-athlete. There may have been a time when most college athletes were legitimate students, but that time has long since passed. The money that can be made by colleges and universities with winning football and basketball programs has changed the whole nature of college athletics, and not for the better. While there are still college football and basketball players who are excellent students, over time this group has become a distinct minority in college sports.
Some have attempted to refute my contention that a high percentage of college athletes no longer qualify as legitimate students by trotting out the GPAs of selected athletes, but this tactic is nothing more than a clever ruse designed to dupe people who don’t know how the system works. The GPAs of college athletes for the most part are indicative of nothing. Why? Two reasons: 1) So many college athletes are majoring in do-nothing degrees that were created to compensate for the lack of academic skills among their athletes that GPAs in these degrees are meaningless; 2) Much of the work turned in by college athletes is done by so-called tutors who are on the payroll of the college in question, tutors whose jobs depend on athletes passing all of their courses; and 3) Many colleges and universities have a small minority of sports-friendly professors who are willing to give grades to athletes who did not earn them in phantom courses developed specifically to accommodate athletes.
The pressure to be supportive of athletes applied to those people who work on the periphery of college football and basketball programs is intense. Consequently, even the most dedicated tutors often find it is easier to just do the work for their athletes than try to convince them they should study, do their homework, attend classes, and take notes. A high percentage of college athletes are in college only because they are gifted athletes. Frankly, if they had no athletic skills few of them would even be admitted to the colleges or universities where they are now treated like royalty. In short, the student-athlete concept has become a charade in many big-time college programs, and even in many of the smaller programs.
Writing on this subject in one of his syndicated columns, Walter Williams cited the example of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “Rampant academic cheating is not confined to primary and secondary schools. Cheating also occurs in the nation’s colleges, as discovered during an investigation at the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina, the state’s flagship university. Over two decades, more than 3,100 enrolled in and received credit for taking nonexistent phantom classes in the University’s department of African and African-American studies. Nearly 50 percent of the students taking the phantom classes were athletes on the university’s football and basketball teams…Former UNC basketball player Rashad McCants told ESPN he received top grades in classes that did not require attendance and he turned in papers that tutors had written for him.” Many college administrators and athletic directors nationwide are quaking in their boots in the aftermath of the Chapel Hill debacle. Why? Because the only difference between the Chapel Hill program and theirs is that Chapel Hill got caught.
Although not all college athletic programs are as academically corrupt as the one at Chapel Hill apparently was, there are few competitive college football or basketball programs that are not loaded with players who could not pass even the most rudimentary college courses without help from tutors. Academically under-prepared athletes in these institutions are purposefully guided to friendly professors, athletic groupies who are willing to look the other way when athletes cheat, do not attend classes, and turn in work obviously done by someone else. Correspondingly, the assistant coaches and other employees of the athletic department who do the work of enrolling athletes in classes pointedly avoid professors who hold athletes to the same academic standards as other students.
During my now 40 years in higher education, I have served on numerous accreditation teams that conducted in-depth examinations of colleges and universities. On these accreditation visits, I have talked with college professors who complained that they were not allowed to fail college athletes and that the pressure to handle athletes with kid gloves was enormous. Some complain that it is easier to just pass athletes who have done no work, passed no tests, and attended no classes than to “fight the system.” Even the colleges and universities that have reasonable academic expectations of their athletes have lowered the academic bar by offering do-nothing degrees a sixth grader could complete. My favorite example of this kind of degree is Leisure Management followed closely by recreation management. In these watered-down programs, college athletes receive degrees for learning how to do the types of things teenage camp counselors do every summer with no training.
So what is the answer? I believe the solution is simple. Colleges and universities with football and basketball programs should simply admit the obvious: they are the minor leagues for the NFL and NBA. This being the case, they should stop the charade and simply pay college athletes. Further, there should be two tracks for college athletes: an academic track and a non-academic track. The academic track would be for athletes who actually want an education and are willing to do what is necessary to complete a legitimate college degree. The non-academic track would be for athletes who are either incapable of completing a legitimate college degree or who have no interest in a college education.
What is especially disturbing about the student-athlete charade is that colleges and universities that recruit egregiously underprepared students, unethically prop them up in the ways described earlier in this column, and grant them do-nothing degrees are selling their academic souls for the almighty dollar. They are also violating their very purpose as institutions of higher education. What is that purpose? David Horowitz summarizes this purpose in his Academic Bill of Rights as follows: “The central purposes of a university are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge to society at large.”
Giving college athletes trumped up degrees when they are barely able to function academically, knowingly allowing tutors to do the work of athletes, providing courses that require no attendance and no work, and encouraging professors to look the other way when athletes cheat, fail to attend classes, and do no school work hardly qualifies as the pursuit of truth, nor does it help the athletes become productive citizens in a pluralistic democracy. Rather, it amounts to knowingly recruiting academically unqualified athletes, using their skills to benefit the institution financially, then throwing the athletes away like used Kleenex once their playing days are over. College athletes who are used in this way are no better prepared to be productive, contributing members of society when they leave their university than they were the day they arrived. Frankly, serious educators should be ashamed.
I will give Walter Williams the last word on this subject (from his syndicated column titled “It’s time to abandon the athlete-scholar charade”). “I think the time has come to abandon the athlete-scholar charade. Universities ought to pay athletes a competitive salary in line with everyone else involved in college sports. Most basketball and football players will see their playing days end when they leave college. Many players who participate in university fraud in order to maintain their player eligibility are black. Where will they end up when they graduate in possession of a fraudulent college degree—other than sad, embittered, used, and having nowhere to turn?” Where indeed?