It’s a common occurrence at many colleges: a player from the basketball or football team is about to enter a classroom when he is stopped by a fellow student asking for his signature.
Signing this autograph won’t land the athlete in trouble with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, however. Instead, his signature is required to remain eligible. The signature is proof he showed up for class that day. The other student is a class checker.
Many colleges employ such attendance monitors. Sometimes they’re paid student employees. Other times, they’re retirees looking for some volunteer work with their favorite college team. Their job is to make sure athletes show up to class.
To coaches and athletic departments facing increasing scrutiny to make sure players are experiencing college as students, not just athletes, the system is a way of guaranteeing athletes don't play hooky. But to critics, the practice represents a deep lack of trust in an athlete’s ability to accomplish what they see as the easiest part of a course: simply showing up.
“If they’re actually there to be students, you don’t need this kind of approach,” said Richard Southall, director of the College Sports Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. “If you say athletics and college sports are about teaching discipline and leadership and you treat the athletes in this very infantile fashion, they’re going to act like kids instead of leaders.”
The University of Arizona employs undergraduate students to arrive 15 minutes before and after a class’s meeting time to makes sure athletes are present for its entirety. Auburn University uses a similar system, as do the University of Georgia and Purdue University, where the checkers are called runners.
At Wichita State University, an athletics attendance policy states that athletes are required to attend all classes, regardless of the course’s own attendance policies. Class checkers are used to monitor the athlete’s attendance, and each unexcused absence carries increasingly harsher penalties with it, though arguably not too harsh at the beginning. If an athlete misses three classes, he or she is fined $25 and withheld from practice if the fine is not paid.
By the fifth absence, the player is suspended from future competition.
In May, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill drew snickers when it posted a job opening advertising a class checker position. The university is still emerging from a no-show-class scandal where about 1,500 athletes, spanning multiple decades, took courses that didn't require attendance at all. The post said the job required a bachelor’s degree and “the ability to navigate campus buildings.” The employee would “monitor class attendance for designated student athletes” for about $10 an hour. At Texas A&M University, the job requires a high school diploma and “the ability to work in any type of weather conditions.”
Some colleges are now opting for digital class checkers, using athlete-oriented versions of attendance software. An app called Class 120, for example, identifies whether an athlete’s smartphone is in a particular class at the scheduled time. If the student's device is not detected, the app sends a notification to the player's coach or academic adviser.
David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University, said the practice of class checking is so common that “if you’re a school that doesn’t do it, you’re thought of as doing something wrong.” Ridpath said as an assistant college wrestling coach, he refused to use class checkers, and now that he’s a professor his disdain for the practice has only grown.
“A lot of people think it’s a positive thing, but when I’ve had these class checkers walk into my classroom, I say, ‘Get out of here,’” Ridpath said. “I tell them, ‘I don’t go onto the field and encroach on your ground. Don’t encroach on mine.’ It’s absolutely silly to have grown men and women checking on other grown men and women like they’re kindergartners.”
College administrators, however, say that the practice helps busy athletes balance sports and academics. For an athlete who played a late game or practiced 40 hours that week, skipping class to squeeze in an hour of sleep is a seductive temptation. Class checkers are the angel on their other shoulder, nudging them to get out of bed and go to class.
At UNC, class checkers may even help athletes in other ways, such as encouraging them to sit in the front row of a class, said Michelle Brown, the university's assistant provost and director of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. She said the extent of the class checkers' duties and how they interact with the athletes varies by team and coach.
"We have high expectations that athletes should be successful in class, and that begins with attending class," Brown said. "Coaches and teams take it on themselves to make sure players are attending class at every opportunity they can."
The argument in favor of class checkers is well known to Gerald Gurney, a professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma and president of the Drake Group, an organization pushing for more emphasis on academics in college sports. Gurney created the University of Oklahoma’s class checking program in 1994, when he was the university’s associate athletics director.
The program worked, he said in 2004, noting that there was a “direct correlation” between monitoring attendance in this way and improvements in athletes’ grades. But a decade later, Gurney said he only created the program at the behest of the football coach, and that he now regrets the decision. He said the practice covers up the underlying causes of athlete absences, including being overworked by coaches or being underprepared due to lax admission standards for athletes.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would certainly not do it,” Gurney said. “This is not how an educational opportunity for intercollegiate athletes is supposed to work. To actually waste money sending people to classes to make sure athletes are attending them borders on the absurd. It goes beyond babysitting. It’s craziness.”