I recently finished Cheated, an account of the academic “scandal” at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The events led to the resignation of the university’s chancellor as well as the firing of a head football coach.

The most serious issue brought up in Cheated is that athletes, mainly football and basketball players were steered not only into easy courses that required little work; they were also placed in “paper classes” that were not really classes at all. Coaches, academic advisors for the university as well as the athletic department were complicit.

Stories of academic advisors steering a student-athlete into classes, even majors, that require little work are not really news. The authors of the book, one a history professor of distinction at Carolina, the other a former academic advisor at the university, acknowledge this. They provide examples of incidents at Auburn, the University of Georgia, the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan. But this is not really a scandal. Non-athletes could take these classes, too, if they knew how to find them.

No matter where this happens, it is a shame as well as an embarrassment to the institution. It also hurts the student-athlete who is denied a true chance to earn a college degree. The problem was more serious at Chapel Hill because one professor, the chair of the Afro-American/African Studies department, and his assistant were allowed to create independent study sections for students who were nowhere close to completing their general education requirements. Independent study was normally reserved for the very best students to conduct research under the supervision of a faculty member. But in the case of the suspect department it was used to allow many a student-athlete to earn grades that would allow them to remain eligible to play their sport.

This problem could get worse before it gets better at flagship state universities such as UNC-Chapel Hill. Most flagships have been working diligently to improve academic advising so that students remain in school, declare a major and ultimately graduate on time. For the most part this is working. For example, in 1985, about a third of the students who entered the University of Maryland-College Park graduated within four years. Today, over 60 percent do. Better advising has contributed to better graduation rates as well as better students. But when athletic advising does not improve while universities continue to admit athletes who cannot do college-level work, the inequalities between the non-athletes and the athletes grow larger.

I’d like to offer some suggestions for athletes who want to compete at the highest level in the revenue sports, yet also be students:

  • Pressure the school to give you the facts. Have students played your sport and earned degrees in the major(s) that you are interested in?
  • Ask how the university and the athletic department work together to help you to keep up with your studies when your team is on the road. Do they provide laptops or other resources?
  • How do the university and the athletic department help you to get the classes you need on and off-season? Do you need to take classes over the summer?
  • Ask if you have the opportunity to work full-time during the summers that you are not playing your sport. This will be harder if you play baseball or lacrosse, for example. But a football player should be able to find time to work at an internship, take three credits and work out. Or have an internship in the major that is credit bearing.
  • Look at the current roster for the schools that are recruiting you. See who is likely to be ahead of you at your position. Also check out the majors declared by the members of the team. Is anyone in your major, especially if you want to take on a harder major such as Chemistry or Engineering?
  • Ask what the graduation rate is for your sport versus the rest of the school. In some cases it will be higher; athletes are more tied to schedules than non-athletes. If its seriously lower, ask why. Yes, your sport is a job. But the school has a responsibility to help you get an education, as long as you do your part.
  • Go to career services and find out how that office helps athletes find work or volunteer activities in their major. At Rutgers-New Brunswick, for example,the career center hosts a job fair just for athletes.
  • There are benefits to playing a sport that you’re entitled, and many that have been offered in the past that are not. Make sure that you are clear on the which are right and which are wrong. Do not compromise eligibility for small dollars or trinkets.

The smart schools that successfully graduate their students usually know what it takes to get a recent high school graduate acclimated to a college-level workload, student athlete or not. Unfortunately, UNC-Chapel Hill made too large a distinction between academic advising for the student-athlete and advising for the students who got in based on their academic achievements.

A school that is serious about helping the student-athlete to earn their education is serious about pushing him to earn it. The academic advisors will not jam an education down their heads. If a student-athlete only wants to remain eligible, the advisors will find a way, unless it leads to a major embarrassment. However, the student-athletes who care only about success i their sport are only cheating themselves.


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