College sports is heading for a fall (essay)

It is fashionable to talk of “bubbles” these days -- unsustainable, somewhat speculative ventures nearing the bursting point: the dot-com stock market bubble in 2000, the housing crisis bubble of a few years ago, and maybe a college tuition bubble today. Broadly defining “bubble,” maybe we are nearing one in major-college intercollegiate sports.

If you ask alumni of the University of Oxford, Moscow State University, the University of Tokyo, or even the nearby University of Toronto, to describe their most successful intercollegiate sports team, you likely will get blank stares.  While amateur, intramural sports activities occur at campuses around the world, the U.S. is unique in having hugely popular, high-revenue collegiate teams. While Great Britain has both top and secondary-level football (soccer) teams, as is the case in American baseball, in the high-revenue American sports of football and basketball, there are overtly professional teams as well as ostensibly amateur college teams comprising so-called “student athletes.”

Yet this model is undergoing a good deal of strain:

  • The financial viability of major college sports importantly derives from “paying” the best “student-athletes” a small fraction of what they would earn in a competitive market; the cartel enforcing low payments to athletes, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, is facing the possibility of losing a potentially extremely costly lawsuit.
  • At many schools, an athletics arms race is forcing students to pay largely hidden fees to sustain costly sports programs, and there is evidence of a growing disconnect between the desires of older alumni and other sport supporters for good teams and the tastes and preferences of the students being increasingly asked to pay the bills.
  • To sustain noncompetitive labor market practices, the NCAA imposes draconian and Byzantine rules on member schools, but incentives are huge to break those rules, leading to repeated scandals creating an aura of corruption hurting not only collegiate sports but higher education generally.
  • A moral crisis is increasingly apparent: relatively innocent young persons (talented athletes) have income many would say is rightly theirs taken from them by their mentors (coaches) for their own personal use, leading to coaches often earning as much as 10 times as much as the university presidents who run the educational aspects of the institution.
  • Graduation rates of athletes, especially members of minority groups, in the top revenue-producing sports are scandalously low, even below the deplorably low rates of the general student population.  Student status for some athletes is increasingly more nominal than real.

In a competitive labor market, workers usually earn on average roughly what they add to their firm’s revenues. Professional football, baseball and basketball players, for example, sometimes receive salaries reaching several million dollars annually. Top-flight college football and basketball teams generate revenues rivaling those of professional teams, but the workers receive scholarships worth at most $50,000 annually, and that’s only at the most expensive institutions. Very good football and basketball players are very lucrative at top sports schools, so coaches able to recruit them receive a large portion of the millions of dollars that ordinarily would go to the athletes. It is not too far-fetched to say that middle-aged adults are exploiting the children under their guidance.

The NCAA enforces this practice. The NCAA forces players to sign a contract in effect abrogating their labor bargaining rights. Even income earned from, say, t-shirts featuring the name and number of the athlete revert to the colleges. A lawsuit challenging this practice filed by the former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon is moving forward, with very high-powered lawyers representing O’Bannon and other athletes.

If the lawsuit is certified as a class action as early as next month, the stakes become huge, and in one plausible scenario the NCAA could be forced into bankruptcy. More likely would be an out-of-court settlement costing the NCAA and maybe major conferences many millions of dollars. The long-term impact would likely move some of the income received by coaches to players, perhaps also crowding out non-revenue sports funded from football or basketball profits, etc.

Even the NCAA’s own data suggest that only 22 major programs break even or make a profit. In the second-tier athletic conferences, such as the 13-university Mid-American Conference (MAC),  schools typically need $10-20 million annually to balance their athletic budget, increasingly met by student fees that can approach $1,000 a year. A survey of students at MAC member colleges directed by David Ridpath suggests that most students are unaware of the extent of the fees, and unhappy when informed of them, given their general low level of interest in collegiate sports and the increasing financial strains of attending college.

The spectacularly tawdry sex scandal at Penn State that led to the imprisonment of the former coach Jerry Sandusky is the worst example of immorality run amok, but dozens of colleges have been found guilty of violating the NCAA’s rules -- giving money to athletes, making illegal recruiting visits, etc. It is not uncommon to read “Ohio State admits to rules violations,” or “Miami faces NCAA sanctions.”

Increasingly, the public perception of universities as intellectual oases, centers of learning and moral probity, is being tarnished by intercollegiate sports.

What to do? Why haven’t university presidents, who nominally run the NCAA, done anything? First, they are afraid of losing their jobs if they anger their fanatic fans (and sometimes their boards). Second, they love the funds from television contracts and other sports commercialization of their schools -- money may trump principle. I know several ex-university presidents strongly promoting reform, but few actively serving ones.

Still, as costs rise faster than revenues, as scandals persist and grow ever more spectacular, and as multimillion-dollar coaches become ever more arrogant and plutocratic, change will likely come, probably ultimately for the good of college sports, higher education, and the nation.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches economics at Ohio University, and is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Editorial Tags: 

Football advisers predict negative athlete outcomes under 9-credit rule

Advisers who work with football players predict a new NCAA academic rule will have negative outcomes -- among them, that athletes will choose easier courses and majors.

Essay urges reforms in how college sports programs recruit athletes

On the first Wednesday of February, big time college football coaches in America sign the latest batch of phenoms to restock the shelves and renew their fans’ dreams of future championships.  The sporting public is fascinated by this annual ritual of unofficial verbal commitments, recommitments, de-commitments and signings of the National Letter of Intent by 17-year-old late adolescents who represent new hope for college teams. 

Recruiting sites rank the potential harvest of each university and the recruiting acumen of each head coach. Special television shows are created for the speculation of who is going where. All of this hoopla and speculation often occur before any serious considerations are made regarding the players’ academic preparation and institutional fit on campus and in the classroom.  It has become common for high school juniors to verbally commit to coaches before they ever step foot on campuses.

Inside football offices, recruiting coordinators and coaches gather to conceive ever-more-elaborate enticements to impress and convince prize recruits that their athletic programs’ value their talents more than the school down the road. The futures of head coaches ride on the talents of the athletes. This year’s prize for successful antics goes to Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel, who arrived at the high school of the nation’s top recruit, Dorial Green-Beckham, in a helicopter.  One wonders which school Green-Beckham would have chosen if Coach Pinkel had arrived in his car. 

Making Peace With the NCAA
A longtime critic of the association
praises the recent decision
to let big-time sports programs
offer multi-year scholarships.

College programs, with the support of their athletic departments and administrations, will cast aside propriety and logic to woo high school stars with perceived talent.  With the help of boosters, coaches too often resort to unethical behavior to persuade athletes to sign National Letters of Intent (NLI). The recruiting frenzy infects boosters who are intent on helping head coaches bag their game. 

The most recent allegations from a former University of Miami booster and convicted felon Nevin Shapiro may implicate as many as 114 players for illegal inducements and extra benefits including parties for players, bounties for injuring opponents, and arranging prostitutes for recruits and abortions for the girlfriends of players. One of Shapiro’s alleged targets in 2004 was Willie Williams, a talented linebacker with a history of legal problems. After considerable angst, University of Miami President Donna Shalala permitted Willie Williams to enroll at Miami in spite of 11 juvenile arrests. The competition to sign the most athletically talented athletes is so fierce and intense that the criminal history of the players seems to be of little consequence to many college coaches and their administrations.  Under pressure from celebrity coaches and major donors, directors of admissions and college presidents often capitulate. 

Another recent example of the zeal for athletic talent is the case of Chris Collins; a talented high school linebacker who was arrested for aggravated sexual assault of a 12-year-old after his high school prom. After the withdrawal of a scholarship offer from the University of Texas at Austin, Mr. Collins simply committed his talents to Oklahoma State University, where he played for the Cowboys for two years until he pleaded guilty to the charges and was convicted as a sex offender. Coaches use the rationale that athletes can be rehabilitated and deserve a second chance.  While it is doubtful that second chances would be afforded to non-scholarship players, it makes one wonder what sort of crime a talented recruit would need to commit to become disqualified  for a second chance.  The need to win football games trumps criminal history and reason.

In 2009, at the request of the University of Tennessee football offices, two football hostesses traveled to the high school games of recruits to entice them to join the volunteers. In 2004, the University of Colorado attempted to lure recruits to campus through well-coordinated parties involving call girls and allegations of rape, launching several ineffectual changes in NCAA recruiting practices and legislation.

As unscrupulous as these recruitment activities may be in college football, it is sadly well-documented that the identification of prospects in men’s basketball starts earlier and that prospects are more likely to be represented by handlers who restrict access to their players to the highest bidders.

Recruiting has become high-pressure coercion of young adults by celebrity coaches. We offer some suggestions to ensure academic primacy and fairness in the recruiting process.

Ban verbal commitments until the prospective athlete has been deemed admissible to the four-year institution. When a coach offers a recruit a scholarship, he acts as an agent for the university. A celebrity coach's offer of a scholarship to a recruit is a powerful implied offer of both admissions and financial aid. It places enormous pressure on the director of admissions and the president of the university to admit the committed recruit irrespective of his academic qualification or institutional fit. To deny admission would certainly create media headlines and angry fans and donors.

Instead, require the institutions’ examination of academic records and a tentative approval of admissions before offers of athletic-related aid are extended to recruits. Scholarships should not be offered unless there is some assurance that the recruit will be admitted to the college of his choice and that he has a reasonable chance of graduating. Without a serious review of the recruit’s academic qualifications, his verbal commitment will often rule out the recruit’s options to attend other colleges. 

With the NCAA’s passage of the ability for institutions to offer multiyear financial aid grants, athletes will once again be afforded a measure of security to pursue a meaningful education without fear of losing their scholarships.  As such, it will become crucial for coaches and institutional admissions officers to make accurate decisions about the long-term academic and athletic viability of recruits. Poor assessments will result in costly and expensive mistakes to sport teams.

Abandon the National Letter of Intent and Releases for Transferring.  The NLI document clearly disadvantages the athlete. By signing the contract, the recruit ends the formal recruiting process. The document presumes that the student-athlete has committed to the institution, and it attaches eligibility penalties for attending a different school or transferring prior to the completion of an academic year.  Should the coach who recruited him leave for a more lucrative job such as Greg Schiano’s departure from Rutgers for the NFL, the student remains bound to the institution under penalty of loss of athletic eligibility. In spite of signing long-term contracts, coaches often abandon their obligations to take offers of million-dollar raises at other institutions. Universities do not penalize their National Merit Scholars for transferring or changing their minds about enrolling, nor should they penalize their athletes. Signing a financial aid agreement is adequate protection for the student to receive a scholarship, while offering him the freedom to transfer without a penalty of loss of eligibility. While the National Letter of Intent may be good for photo opportunities, the current contract unfairly favors the interests of the coach and university.

Maryland coach Randy Edsall refused to release three players to schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and non-conference schools that Maryland was scheduled to play in the upcoming two seasons. Coach Edsall felt free to leave Connecticut to accept the job at Maryland without any restriction whatever. Athletes should be afforded the same freedom to transfer to explore other schools and programs as their coaches and the student body.

Redesign official visits to follow those offered to the general student body. Abandon the orchestrated entertainment offered by hosts and volunteer recruiters. Official visits for prospective athletes should be designed to be learning opportunities about the institution and the athletic program rather than the circus and party atmosphere they have become. Recruits should stay in campus residential facilities rather than five-star hotel suites. Their visits should be the same process offered to  prospective students by the campus and simulate common campus life. 

Limit official visits to three institutions. Prospective athletes may take as many as five official visits paid by the institutions. Today, official visits often are formalities for verbally committed prospects to be entertained at the cost of the institutions. By the official visit season of the athlete’s senior year, most have visited campus on unofficial visits, attended the coach’s athletic camps, attended multiple games, and narrowed down their choices. We believe that de-emphasizing and reducing the number of official campus visits would represent a cost savings to institutions and possibly reduce the party atmosphere.

Require police background checks of recruits and all athletic personnel.  Information which could legally be gathered on the past criminal activities of recruits should be sought and reported to the president of the university before offers of admissions or financial aid are executed.  Police background checks should periodically be conducted for coaching staffs and all full-time athletic staff. The instant celebrity attached to big time college sport coaches and athletes may influence inappropriate off-the-field behavior that endangers the reputation and integrity of the university. Athletic programs that have been embarrassed by recruits and athletic staff are slowly adopting this practice, but we recommend that it become established national policy.

We should expect athletic staff to represent our universities to recruits with accurate depictions of campus and athletic life without taking advantage of youth who are too often from disadvantaged backgrounds.  For when the press conferences and celebrations fade, star recruits encounter the stark regimen of athletic program routine and are often disillusioned by the unfulfilled promises of their coaches. 

The reality does not mirror the hype they heard from their coaches. When recruiting has ended, athletic programs will often attempt to reduce the expectations of highly recruited athletes, but the athletes are often left feeling betrayed. Campus, classes and sport do not quite measure up with what was described. The academic major they had hoped to pursue interferes with athletic commitments and academic majors are changed to accommodate athletics. Their hopes of playing time often do not materialize immediately as they were told, and recovering from injury in rehabilitation becomes their new reality.  Institutions should eliminate the party atmosphere for prospective athletes, and ensure that campus visits represent the reality of campus life without gimmicks.

Gerald S. Gurney is assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma and immediate past president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics. Jerome C. Weber is Regents Professor of Education and Human Relations at Oklahoma.

Essay: Longtime critic applauds NCAA action on multiyear scholarships for athletes

For decades I have used events like March Madness, the NCAA’s season-ending basketball tournament, to bash the NCAA for transforming big-time college athletes into underpaid employees in a multibillion-dollar industry. Even worse, in my opinion, was the myth that these athletes were merely engaging in an extracurricular activity during their free time, like members of the drama club.  

Much to my surprise the NCAA, under the leadership of President Mark Emmert, has recently enacted financial aid reforms that may have brought my years of NCAA-bashing to an end. Critics have argued that the changes amount to little more than "window dressing," but a strong case can be made that the revival of multi-year scholarships represents one of the most significant educational reforms in recent NCAA history.

In 1956, the NCAA decided to openly subsidize college athletes by offering scholarships covering room, board, tuition and fees. But it was not until the introduction of one-year renewable scholarships in 1973 that coaches could cancel aid for just about any reason, including injury or poor athletic performance. At this point scholarships became binding contracts.

Over the next four decades, one-year renewable scholarships have provided the burgeoning college sports industry with a reliable and disciplined source of cheap labor. Athletes who do not meet a coach’s performance expectations are often encouraged to transfer or simply stripped of financial aid. Coaches’ jobs often depend on getting rid of “dead wood.”

It is difficult to overstate the kinds of demands coaches can make on players as a condition for the yearly renewal of financial aid. Coaches ask that athletes play with injury, and control their lives on and off the field. Because each season is a tryout for financial aid the next, sports takes priority. An NCAA survey carried out a few years ago found that big-time college football players spend an average of 44.8 hours a week on their sport in addition to time in the classroom.

A number of reform organizations, including the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, have recommended a return to multiyear scholarships over the years, but to no avail. The NCAA ignored such suggestions in deference to coaches who feared losing control over their players. Media pundits generally labeled proposals to return to multiyear scholarships as quixotic. Only two years ago, two ESPN basketball analysts, Andy Katz and Fran Fraschilla, assured me on "Outside the Lines" that the idea had no traction.

Rationalize Sports Recruiting
Recent scandals and embarrassing
escapades show that big changes
are needed in how big-time
programs recruit players,
two professors argue.

All of the skeptics have been proved wrong; the media silence is deafening. In the wake of one of the most tumultuous years in college sports, which included conference realignment motivated by greed, several lawsuits that challenged the NCAA on antitrust grounds, and a massive scandal at Penn State that raised questions about the role of big-time college sports in university governance, multiyear scholarships made a Rocky Balboa-like comeback.

The fact that the NCAA’s scholarship proposal barely survived an override vote lends credence to the argument that the NCAA has finally done something significant. For decades, universities have denied canceling scholarships for injury or poor performance. If they were telling the truth, why did so many oppose this new policy? The large number of dissenting votes suggests that in many schools, scholarship athletes have become expendable commodities.

The NCAA’s new legislation makes the adoption of multiyear scholarships optional, thus allowing athletes and their parents to chose between a one-year contract and a multiyear educational gift. If highly talented athletes choose programs that offer multiyear scholarships over those that do not, the NCAA will have rigged the recruiting game in favor of academic values. And this is how it should be.

At schools that decide to adopt multiyear scholarships, college athletes will be students, not cheap labor. Coaches will have to focus on teaching and player development because they will have to live with their “recruiting mistakes.” Federal Graduation Rates, the best measure of whether athletes graduate within six years from the university they entered as freshmen, will likely increase dramatically. And even though these scholarships can be canceled if an athlete voluntarily withdraws from sports, no court of law will mistake them for employment contracts.

Much more remains to be done. Academic standards must be raised to prevent special admits from playing as freshmen, and the minimum GPA for playing college sport should be 2.0 in all conferences. The clustering of athletes in classes that give high grades for little or no work -- a practice for which faculty must take responsibility -- should be eliminated. Faculty senates should review coaches' rules of conduct to make sure they are consistent with academic best practices. The list could go on, but the NCAA has taken a huge step toward meaningful reform.

Allen Sack, professor and interim dean in the College of Business at the University of New Haven, played on Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team. He is also president elect of the Drake Group, a faculty organization committed to academic integrity in collegiate sports.

Split Decision in Title IX Case

U.S. judge finds that California-Davis did not discriminate against female wrestlers 10 years ago -- but that it broke the law because number of female athletes declined while they were in college.

Whistled for Interference

NCAA finds that Georgia Tech violated amateurism rules, but made case far more serious by obstructing investigators.

Pretending They Didn't Happen

On Feb. 26, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team defeated the University of Florida. Immediately after the contest, on their home court of Rupp Arena, Kentucky officials presented Coach John Calipari with the game ball to commemorate what was purported to be his 500th career victory.

On Athletes and Aid

Report shows that institutions in NCAA Division III, which does not allow athletics scholarships, need reminder to follow cardinal rule.

Let the Women Play

Leading up to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual convention this week, most of the discussion among colleges that belong to Division III has focused on the future of the membership at the NCAA’s nonscholarship competitive level. Largely overlooked has been proposed legislation

to limit the use of male practice players which may well be the most controversial piece of legislation voted on at this year’s convention.

The Division III proposal is fairly moderate: the currently unrestricted use of male practice players would be limited to one day a week during the traditional championship season, and the number of male participants would be limited to half the starting squad size (rounded up, in the case of uneven starting numbers). Since the last convention, when the proposal was tabled for more data, I have kept my ear to the ground on discussions at the national level, most of which centered around responses from members of Division I. In the microcosm of my own Division III conference, we have recently revisited the arguments pro and con as well. I respectfully offer two reasons to support this legislation, and a recommendation for taking the discussion further on campus regardless of the outcome of the vote:

1. It creates a level playing field for those who aspire to higher competitive levels.

What is athletics about in Division III? As a component of the broader educational experience, there is first and foremost a participation opportunity. Once established, there is the chance to achieve a higher level of success within that opportunity. In other words (in the scope of this discussion about women’s athletics), you do your best to assemble a group of women who are interested in a sport (in addition to getting a college degree), educate and train them in the rules and skills of performing that sport, match them up against a group of women of like interest, and see who wins the game. There are a number of tools at hand—coaches, the weight room, nutrition counseling, summer leagues, private lessons—to help achieve higher levels of competency. The fact that we have coaches who have gone beyond these standard tools to the use of male practice players to push our women “to the next level” during the 19-week Division III playing season is a situation that bears scrutiny.

This legislation would scale back the arms race that has stepped precariously into the realm of potential Title IX violation. It certainly does not eliminate the opportunity for female athletes, if they choose, to seek practice and even competition opportunities against stronger, faster, taller young men. It simply “limits” it to the remaining 33 weeks of the year when they are not “in season” with their college teams, and it ensures that healthy women are not sitting on the sideline while men take their places in practice situations.

2. It encourages a shared institutional commitment to building roster sizes of women’s teams and discourages stopgap strategies.

Good financial planning is predicated on a variety of sound spending, saving and investment practices. If you are trying to eliminate debt, it is not sound practice to use a credit card to pay those bills. Male practice players are the credit cards of building solid rosters of female athletes. For institutions struggling with recruiting or retaining female athletes in any given sport, use of male practice players is a short term fix at best; reliance on them only delays improvement by masking the underlying problem. While weak recruiting efforts by a coach may be at fault at some institutions, it is wrong to place the blame solely on the coach or the athletics department. Recruiting in Division III is an institutional responsibility based on the divisional philosophy that athletes are students first, and there must be a coordinated effort (including a “spend money to make money” approach with recruiting budget allocations) in programs where a team or teams are consistently falling below viable roster sizes.

It is important to note that there are more than 6 million girls participating in high school sports in this country, yet there are only 166,000 participating in college athletics--less than 3 percent of the pool. The rationale that “girls just don’t want to play” does not hold sway in the face of these numbers. Injuries can also decimate healthy rosters—but that can happen with men’s rosters too. Is the solution to allow part-time students or some other such stop gap measure if this happens with a men’s team? I don’t know too many people in Division III who would support that option, but if we are obligated to treat our men and women equitably, then perhaps that discussion must be on the table as well, or we need to eliminate such quick fixes altogether.

The proposed legislation allows for women’s teams who might have a roster equivalent of less than two full starting squads to practice in a scrimmage setting with male practice players once a week; coaches would use other drills and skill instruction the remainder of the time. It also allows bona fide coaches (whether paid or voluntary) to participate in scrimmage-type situations at their discretion. In other words, you can use your credit card to manage temporary shortfalls, but there are spending limits, and everyone needs to work together to find better cash flow for the long haul.


Regardless of your institution’s position, this proposal should at minimum prompt a healthy and objective re-visitation of gender equity and Title IX practices in the athletic department. Last year, an e-mail inquiry sent through the National Association of Division III Administrators' listserv to members asking them to identify the Title IX coordinator on their campuses raised a red flag on the lack of knowledge of this subject. The majority who responded indicated that they (mainly athletics directors or senior woman administrators) were primarily responsible for this duty. The fact is, Title IX is a federal law that affects far more than just athletics, including academic policies, student services, housing, financial aid, and all student organizations. It is thus highly unlikely that an athletics department staff member would be responsible for all of these areas, in addition to athletics. This misunderstanding can have serious institutional consequences.

I would suggest that institutions use discussion of this legislative proposal as an opportunity to do a Title IX and gender equity review of their athletic departments. A recently released study authored by John Cheslock, Ph. D., of the Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Arizona (with support from the Women’s Sports Foundation) analyzing Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) data indicates that Title IX compliance is far from a fait accompli. Presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and Title IX coordinators can take a look at how their institution is graded in this study to get an initial sense of their athletic departments’ level of compliance. It should also prompt an examination of institutional compliance using the “three-prong” test approved by the Office of Civil Rights. A comprehensive Q&A regarding gender equity and Title IX compliance along with other educational resources can be found on the NCAA’s Web site.

Thirty five years after the passage of Title IX, there is still plenty of evidence to suggest that gender equity practices continue to bear examination both within and outside of athletic departments on our campuses. Considering that the provision of equitable participation opportunities for males and females is one of the core tenets of the Division III philosophy, limiting the use of male practice players would be a good faith demonstration of Division III’s commitment to this important principle.

Donna Ledwin
Author's email:

Donna Ledwin is the commissioner of the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference and a member of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee. She is also the mother of a 10-year-old daughter who lives to play ice hockey.

The University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn

You have seen the advertisements from a mobile telephone company cleverly combining the names of several cities and countries to emphasize the network’s broad coverage. It occurred to me that such combinations could be applied as well to a discussion of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), which tracks the academic performance of student-athletes and penalizes squads whose student-athletes do not meet certain academic performance metrics. Welcome to the University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn.

The new world of the NCAA academic eligibility standards pivot on a key yet scarcely mentioned variable: an institution’s central academic policies. As such my argument is this: a collection of academic policies, many or of all which were developed with no thought given to NCAA eligibility standards, influences greatly how the new standards will play out on any individual campus. Academic calendars, course drop policies, course scheduling practices, transfer policies and the like now mean that a student-athlete at one school may have a very different experience vis-à-vis NCAA academic standards than the student-athlete at a different institution. And the student-athlete who attends the University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn will have the easiest time of all if good ‘ole U of O adopts certain policies, but not others.

Take the calendar for dropping a course with a grade of W. At the University of Tennessee students (and student-athletes) must decide to drop a course by the forty-first day of the semester, before having the chance to submit midterm examinations and papers. This early deadline means that there is precious little time, and only limited inputs, for deciding to drop the course or not. By contrast, students at the University of Kansas may drop a course through the sixtieth day of the semester. Furthermore, students withdrawing from a course at Tennessee after the forty-first day face the possibility of earning a WF grade that counts as an F for calculating the semester gpa. Not so at Kansas, where the WF is not calculated in the gpa. Or, the student could be studying at Penn State, where the deadline to drop a course with a W is the sixtieth day. Like at Tennessee, the student there faces earning a WF grade if the course is dropped after the deadline, and the grade counts as an F for calculating the gpa. However, the Penn State student (and student-athlete) might be lucky enough to earn a WN (no grade) in this situation, which is not calculated in the gpa.

Attendance policies and course scheduling play important roles as well. Absences accrued by University of Florida student-athletes traveling to athletic competitions are excused, and faculty at Auburn University are required to schedule make up sessions for in-class examinations and assignments missed by students and student-athletes with excused absences. Not so at Tennessee, so that an athlete who misses a quiz or even examination does not have to be offered an opportunity to make up these in-class assignments (and as Faculty Athletics Representative at Tennessee I can tell you that not infrequently student-athletes’ grades suffer because of these missed opportunities).

Missing classes due to travel to competition, a primary variable in academic success, is less of a problem at the University of Iowa, where so few courses are offered on Fridays, a prime athletic travel day, that one academic college at the university is offering to pay departments to list more Friday courses. The announced goal for the return of Friday classes at Iowa is to end abusive drinking associated with “Thirsty Thursdays.” But another ramification of this change would be a sharp increase in the number of classes Iowa student-athletes will miss.

Grading scales can also matter. At Tennessee and Rutgers, athletes and students study in a system, nearly unique to these two schools, that assigns full letter grades and plus grades, but not minus grades. Other schools assign only full letter grades. Students and student-athletes at North Carolina State and the University of Alabama enjoy the opportunity to balance lower course grades with grades of A+ that carry 4.3 grade points. And speaking of course grades, does a grade of D count towards requirements in the major? They do if you are an Oregon Duck, and they do at the University of Georgia, but not if you are enrolled in a major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Perhaps no other policy plays a bigger role in determining progress towards degree eligibility for college athletes.

Myriad other policies come into play. Does the institution accept grades of D from transfer students? The University of Arkansas accepts up to six such transfer credits, but Tennessee does not. Are mid-year transfers accepted? At Vanderbilt they are not, so that its basketball coach was not allowed to sign a prominent basketball player when he wished to transfer from the University of Arizona (he now plays at Tennessee). How many courses may be repeated, how are the repeated course grades calculated, and are there other restrictions on course repeats? At Tennessee a maximum of three lower division courses may be repeated, with the higher grade replacing the lower score. At Ohio University departments set their own course repeat rules, and many allow up to five repeated courses at either the lower or upper division levels.

The relationship between academic policies and NCAA metrics has created a dilemma for which I have no immediate solution. One size does not and should not fit all in higher education. Our universities have different missions, serve different populations, and define success differently. But when addressing academic reform the NCAA does try to make one size fit all for very good reasons that have to do with fairness, establishing a level field of competition, and now to establish a reasonable chance of graduating from college. Unwittingly, its new academic expectations and regulations have upped the importance of the kinds of central academic policies operating as a whole that I have described here.

Perhaps there is no solution to this dilemma, but the NCAA’s academic reforms do teach us a valuable lesson that extends beyond athletes and athletic departments: University administrators would do well to approach key academic policies in toto when considering the academic expectations they have for all of their students. One policy alone will not determine students’ performances, but the sum of a school’s academic policies does produce an individual campus culture, certain academic expectations, and the likelihood of success or failure. At most schools these policies probably did not develop at the same time and as a coherent whole, and indeed contradictory policies may exist on the same campus.

Academic policies adopted piecemeal likely have escaped the kind of careful, cumulative review I am calling for here. Given their importance in promoting student success they should be approached as a whole, and reviewed to determine if they reflect the goals of the university. Certainly I am not calling for a cynical plan to alter policies only to facilitate an athlete’s academic eligibility, but we can take advantage of the recent NCAA academic success legislation to think more intentionally about our academic policies and how they impact all students. In short, we can learn from the NCAA.

There are many best practices to guide such a review. For a start I suggest reviewing the academic policies of the University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn, proud home of the Bobcatnittanylionjayhawkhawkeyevolunteers.

Todd A. Diacon
Author's email:

Todd Diacon is vice provost for academic operations and faculty athletics representative at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.


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