Tackling Favoritism for Athletes

Accusations of wrongdoing at Auburn renew debate about clustering of players in departments with "friendly" professors.
July 20, 2006

In his many years of teaching at universities with major sports programs, Boyce Watkins has seen a lot of good and bad. He once came across an athlete who could read only at the fourth grade level. The student was ultimately investigated on academic misconduct charges because he turned in a paper that looked like it was written by Edgar Allan Poe, according to Watkins, now a professor of finance at Syracuse University.

The student’s disciplinary committee was made up of three students and four professors. All of the students, upon seeing the evidence, voted to find the player guilty of cheating. But they were outvoted by the faculty, and the player continued dribbling away at the institution.

To Watkins, that example was evidence of a larger professor-centric problem in big-time college sports. The issue has been raised anew by accusations, reported this week in The New York Times, that a sociology professor at Auburn University offered specialized “directed reading” courses to athletes that allowed them to accumulate course credits with little work. The accused professor has said that many students were able to take special courses. University administrators are currently investigating the situation.

Watkins says it is all too common to see athletes grouped in certain departments or programs under the sheltering wings of faculty members who appear to care more about their success on the courts, rinks and fields than in the classroom. Faculty members are often the most vocal critics of favoritism for athletes (the issues at Auburn were raised by one whistle blowing sociology professor against another), he says, but it is frequently professors who are responsible for the favoritism in the first place.

While accusations of widespread abuse like that alleged at Auburn are unusual, "clustering" of athletes -- in which large numbers of athletes at an institution major in a particular program or department, out of proportion to other students at the college -- is common. A 2002-3 analysis  by USA Today found that a large percentage of football players at Auburn and Duke University (a quarter and a third of the teams, respectively) majored in sociology, while tiny fractions of all undergraduates majored in that field. At North Carolina State, the University of Michigan and University of Southern Mississippi, the most popular major among football players tended to be sports management, also far out of proportion with their peer students.

Richard M. Southall, an assistant professor of sport and leisure studies at the University of Memphis, says that his own sports and leisure area is the second most popular major for athletes, just behind those who attend the institution’s University College, an “individualized and interdisciplinary” degree program. 

“I don’t know what it means,” says Southall. “I just know the data.”

Kerry Howland, president-elect of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletes, believes that the issue of academic clustering "needs to be examined with respect to the uniqueness of the situations."

"The question of clustering is pretty much institution specific," says Howland, who is an academic adviser for athletes at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. "Student athletes have tight schedules given their time demands. It may be that certain instructors teach sections on days and times that are more feasible given these demands.

"Often, student-athletes are drawn to such majors as exercise science and sport management because of the appeal of the athletic themes," she says. "However, here at UT, those are academically demanding majors."

Many professors, however, are suspicious that such clustering doesn't happen by accident and that students may be encouraged in certain directions by an athletics department's academic advisers, either because the curriculum is seen as easy or the professors as lenient. "I think there is extreme -- yet subtle -- pressure on students and academic advisers to make sure athletes make progress toward a degree," says Southall, who is also an associate director of the Drake Group, an organization of faculty members who argue for reform of big-time college sports. 

Some people concerned about academic integrity in college sports have argued that the National Collegiate Athletic Association's recently instituted academic rules may unintentionally increase the problem. The rules, in effect, punish institutions competitively and financially if their athletes don't continue to move toward a degree, and may ratchet up the pressure to get athletes into majors that they can be counted on to succeed in.

"I think the NCAA's [Academic Progress Rate] system will exacerbate this pressure and lead to more occurrences of clustering, sketchy majors and/or classes and more utilization of design your own degree programs," says Southall. "The bottom line to all of this, to me, is that the organizational culture in many college athletic departments is that the 'education' of many athletes is an obstacle to be overcome -- a nuisance almost."

According to the Drake Group, the only way to combat financial and organizational culture pressures is through disclosure of athletes' academic majors, academic advisers, courses listed by academic major, general education requirements, and electives, course grade point average and instructor.

"No individual student grades would be disclosed," says Southall. "Disclosure is not about student behavior -- it is about institutional behavior."

Not all professors believe that such steps are necessary. “In my 14 years teaching at Harvard, I have never heard of anyone being asked for any special services,” says Edward L. Glaeser, the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at the university. “This would obviously be wildly inappropriate, and I could not imagine our athletics department doing anything of this kind.” According to the 2002-3 analysis, economics tends to be the most popular program for football students at the university.

Glaeser says that he’d like to believe that cases of athletic favoritism are isolated incidents. “I don't think that Harvard takes any kind of special steps on this,” he says. “I just think that people would find it so unusual that it doesn't get tried.”

Wally Renfro, senior adviser to the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, says that the organization has often been frustrated by the criticism from the Drake Group. He says that many professors in the group seem to have drawn "the illogical conclusion" that NCAA academic reform efforts are somehow meant to be harmful to students.

But Renfro says that the NCAA's rules are based on research from over two decades of student performance, and he believes that the standards are crucial in helping more athletes graduate. 

Regarding the Drake Group's suggestions on disclosure, Renfro is concerned that student privacy laws could be jeopardized, although he says "there may be some validity" in collecting the data for all students, not just athletes. "I'm just not sure what it proves," he says. "It suggests there's something inherently wrong with athletes [clustering] in certain majors, and I'm not sure there's something inherently wrong there."

S. Philip Morgan, a professor of sociology at Duke University, says that institutions would be wise not to encourage independent study courses, because he believes that professors -- especially those who care deeply about the success of their institution's teams -- can easily manipulate grades for such courses. “There is very little oversight in those kinds of situations,” he says. 

Morgan says he’s never been asked to do special favors for students, but agrees that professors should take a hard line when they encounter such behavior. “This is an issue in lots of places,” he says. “Either internally or externally, people should look at these issues as they arise and try to remedy them.”

But Southall, a former football, basketball and track coach, is concerned that all-too-often with athletic favoritism, the problem is written off as being about one professor or a small group of students. “There are always these big investigations, and they find this rogue coach, this rogue faculty member, these rogue students,” he laments. “There will be the bad apples to get rid of. But I really believe that this is a systemic problem that affects us all.” 



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