Academic Fraud in Collegiate Athletics

Flurry of cheating cases renews questions about degree of pressure placed on academic support programs since NCAA instituted new rules for sports eligibility.
October 2, 2007

Academic fraud cases have long been a staple of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's infractions list. The descriptions are pleasure reading for critics of big-time college sports who bemoan the influence that determined athletics officials, administrators and faculty can have on keeping athletes eligible at all costs.

Of late, there's been no shortage of material:

  • At Florida State University, a "learning specialist" and a tutor "perpetrated academic dishonesty” in a scandal involving 23 athletes, an internal investigation found. In some cases, the employees -- both of whom resigned, according to the university -- gave students answers to online exams and typed material for them.
  • A former Purdue University women’s basketball assistant coach, fired last year, was found to have partially researched and composed a sociology paper for a player and then lied about it to university officials who were looking into the allegations. The coach left an e-mail trail behind that proved to be the smoking gun .
  • The University of Kansas received three years’ probation last fall for a series of violations, including a former graduate assistant football coach who gave two prospective athletes answers to test questions for correspondence courses they were taking at the university.
  • Add to the list concerns over correspondence courses that allow athletes to gain eligibility and the issue of "clustering" -- illustrated in the Auburn University case involving a sociology professor who is accused of offering specialized classes to athletes that required little work.

Whether or not cases of academic fraud have become more rampant or even more serious in recent years is open to debate; statistics on their occurrence (increased or otherwise) are hard to come by. But many agree that the climate has changed in college athletics in ways that may make such misbehavior more likely. And it has happened since the NCAA unveiled its latest set of academic policies that raised the stakes on colleges to show that their athletes perform well in the classroom while simultaneously lowering the requirements freshman athletes must meet to become eligible initially.

Largely as a response to sagging graduation rates for football and basketball players, the NCAA put into place several years ago new academic rules that require colleges to report each term whether their athletes are on progress toward a degree -- with penalties awaiting those whose students aren't progressing and aren't performing.

At the same time, the NCAA reversed its previous approach of continually raising initial entrance requirements and began allowing students with SAT scores as low as 400 (or a corresponding ACT score) to enroll so long as their high school grades were high enough. That move appeased critics of the standardized test score requirement who said it adversely affected minority students.

In the years since the changes, many have expressed concern that the combination of heightened academic expectations and lowered entrance regulations would put the campus employees responsible for providing academic support to athletes in a tough spot, asked to help a growing number of marginal students -- potentially at all costs.

That fear is so real to James F. Barker, president of Clemson University, that he meets each semester with everyone who gives tutorial help or guidance to athletes and "reads them the Riot Act."

"I tell them, 'I'm responsible for 20,000 people and a half-a-billion-dollar budget -- those two things could keep me awake at night, but they don't. What does is academic fraud. No student-athlete is worth crossing that line for,' " says Barker, who also heads the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors, the panel of college presidents that governs the NCAA's highest-profile competitive level.

David Goldfield, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who served on the academic eligibility and compliance cabinet of the NCAA, which helped craft the new policy, said he supports the new progress standards but still opposes lowering entrance requirements -- which he said strains the entire system of academic support.

"When there's pressure applied you're going to get a reaction, and the reaction we're seeing is academic fraud cases," Goldfield said. "From a coach's perspective, the major task is to win, but now with the new requirements, the second and often equally pressing task is to maintain the eligibility of players."

Goldfield fears that academic fraud cases are far more widespread than just the ones reported to the NCAA. Compliance officers can have a difficult time tracking down such cases, he said, because they can involve wrongdoing by people in all parts of an institution, and often rely on self-reporting by athletics officials.

The NCAA did not have a comment for this article. Kevin Lennon, the association's vice president for membership services, said in a statement about the Florida State case that "the NCAA and its member institutions take seriously any allegation of academic misconduct" and that "these types of violations are among the most serious that can be committed."

Lennon added that the NCAA is committed to its academic reform measures. The association has defended its eligibility changes by arguing that the focus should be primarily on what students can achieve in college and not just on their high school academic performance.

But some say that stance ignores the reality that unprepared students often can't cut it in college.

"Just because you're technically eligible to compete doesn't mean you are ready to compete in the classroom," said Tim Metcalf, director of compliance at East Carolina University.

Terry Holland, a longtime men's basketball coach at the University of Virginia who is now athletics director at East Carolina, said coaches and college officials are under increasing pressure to accept any student who qualifies under the NCAA's rules. In his meetings with other athletics directors, Holland said he hasn't encountered one yet who says athletes are better prepared now than they were five years ago.

"For many programs, the recruiting pitch is, 'We have a great academic support system and everyone graduates,' " Holland said. "Maybe what the athletes are hearing is, 'You're going to do the work for me. It may not be fraud, but I won't have to do as much.' "

Colleges have largely responded by devoting more resources to academic support services. They are hiring more tutors, building new academic centers and beefing up compliance offices.

If more academic fraud cases have surfaced in recent years, it's most likely a product of better reporting and more collaboration among those monitoring the athletics departments, said Phil Hughes, associate director of athletics for student services at Kansas State University and president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletes.

Hughes said he understands the increasing demands on athletics and academic support employees, who are spending more time tracking real-time data for the Academic Progress Rate (the NCAA's primary new way of measuring athletes' and teams' classroom progress) and helping struggling students, which can take time away from helping other students, athlete or non.

Barker, the Clemson president, said he typically doesn't meet with the academic support staff who provides tutoring and other services to the general study body (as opposed to athletes) because he doesn't see the pressures of committing academic misconduct there to be as great.

At Clemson, both academic support offices report to the university's provost. Some have called for more colleges to remove the perceived wall between athletics and the rest of the academy by moving tutors assigned to athletes into academic affairs, or at least providing students and athletes with the same degree of academic support.

Hughes sees reason for optimism in the academic support landscape: Advisers who once felt like they worked directly for the football coach are increasingly reporting that they feel insulated from that pressure, he said.

Holland, the East Carolina athletics director, said that simply adding more tutors doesn't get at the problem. Colleges still face the risk of having lower-level employees (often graduate students) making important judgment calls about what the proper boundaries are in helping a student stay eligible. The NCAA, he added, is also complicit in adding stress to academic support system by scheduling events during busy test periods instead of moving more contests to the weekend.

But Tomas Jimenez, executive director of the LSU Academic Center for Student Athletes, said he isn't convinced that entering students are any less prepared than before, or that the NCAA's new academic rules are leading to more cases of academic misconduct.

"It's always easy to point the finger at the NCAA, but it takes institutions to step up for academic support," he said.

Goldfield, the Charlotte professor, said he doesn't entirely blame athletics departments for misconduct, either. Faculty are often guilty of grade manufacturing or taking part in schemes in which athletes are funneled to their class and largely given a pass.

And what about the role of students in such scandals? Kerry Kenny, vice-chair of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which represents the interests of athletes in the NCAA's top competitive level, said that while it's unfair to judge all athletes by the actions of a few, the group as a whole needs to make better decisions about how it uses help from academic support employees.

In the end, most agree it comes down to trust.

"We have to rely on the integrity of the people involved," Goldfield said.


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