A colleague of mine once asked me a rhetorical question. “What kind of magic does it take for college athletes, especially those from very disadvantaged educational backgrounds, to remain eligible when they must spend most of their waking hours training for or playing sports?”
“The magic,” he suggested, “is academic fraud.”
In his view, which I share, responsibility rests with institutional leaders whose jobs depend on currying favor with powerful alumni and other constituencies whose priority is winning national championships, not academic excellence.
Cheating scandals such as the one at the University of North Carolina are not limited to a few rogue universities. On the contrary, some violations of academic integrity are to be expected in any school that requires athletes to give so much time and attention to sports that an army of tutors and academic support personal is needed to keep them eligible. Most academic counselors are dedicated professionals, but the line between tutoring and doing athletes work for them can get a little fuzzy.
Helping athletes stay eligible becomes academic fraud when athletes’ work is done for them or when they are pushed into classes with little or no academic content.
The evidence is overwhelming that big-time college football players have little time to make college education a priority. The National Labor Relations Board in Illinois recently issued a detailed report on football at Northwestern University stating that football players “are under strict and exacting control by their coaches throughout the entire year.” Pre-season training begins six weeks before the start of the fall semester. During this period, coaches provide “hour by hour” schedules of football related activities which last from 5:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night for an average of about 50 or 60 hours per week.
The NLRB report estimated 40 to 50 hours per week during the season devoted to games, weight training, mandatory meetings, practice, and travel. Players often go to the coaches’ offices at 8 p.m. to watch game film for a couple of hours.
In a survey of college football players undertaken several years ago, the NCAA found that football players devote about 40 hours a week on football- related activities in preparation for 12 regular season games, thus reinforcing the findings at Northwestern.
Athletes recently challenged the NCAA in a number of antitrust cases. Without those challenges, the NCAA would have made no effort to introduce significant educational reforms. The athletes deserve the stipends and scholarship enhancements ordered by the judge in the antitrust case brought by Ed O’Bannon.
However, as a college professor, I am more concerned that big-time college athletes receive the educational opportunity they were promised than the compensation that comes with further professionalizing college sport. Denying athletes those educational opportunities constitutes a breach of contract.
In order to defend athletes rights to an education, the Drake Group, an organization whose mission is to defend academic integrity in college sports, has proposed educational reforms which should be embraced by every accredited institution of higher education and be institutionalized in NCAA rules and regulations where appropriate.
These reforms include:
Allow freshman eligibility for only those athletes whose high school grade point average or standardized test scores are within one standard deviation from the mean academic profile of their entering class, thus giving special admits time to adjust to a more competitive academic environment than they may be use to.
Athletes must maintain a cumulative GPR of 2.0 in order to be eligible for sports, thus sending a clear message that education gets top priority. Athletes who fall below 2.0 should be given two semesters to raise their GPA to that level or lose their athletic scholarship.
Provide extensive academic remediation for athletes who are ineligible to play as freshmen and limit their practice time to 10 hours a week. Remediation should begin in the summer before these athletes enter college.
Require that all academic and counseling support services for college athletes be under the direct supervision of and budgetary control of the institution’s academic authority, administered externally to the athletic department, and be consistent with counseling and support services for all students.
Require institutions to provide “whistle blower protections” for those who disclose unethical conduct or institutional rules violations related to the conduct of athletics programs.
Require all NCAA institutions to award multiyear scholarships that extend to graduation and that cannot be cancelled for injury or contributions to a team’s success. Cancelation should be permitted only for voluntary withdrawal or serious violations of team rules.
Require the faculty senate (or other highest faculty governance authority) to closely examine athletic department and coaches’ rules (other than those promulgated by the NCAA) to ensure they are compatible with educational best practices. Faculty should have the final say on this.
The NCAA’s 20 hour a week (4 hours a day) rule should be strictly enforced and the scholarships of players who skip supposedly “voluntary” workouts during the year to devote their time to non-athletically related activities should be protected.
Institutions should work with faculty senates to ensure that athletic contests are scheduled to minimize conflict with class attendance, and no athlete should be prohibited from taking a class that may occasionally conflict with a practice, or team meeting.
Institutions should have a tenured faculty-only Committee on Academic Oversight elected by the faculty senate to report annually to the senate on the academic progress of college athletes and, when possible, to compare such data to non-athletes. This report would list independent studies taken, grades received, and professors teaching. It would also include a list of athletes’ advisors, courses taken, faculty who taught those courses and grades received. Care would be taken to adhere to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
This is only a partial list of reforms that should be instituted. In the coming years, Congress should take a very close look at the way college sports in American higher education is governed. Perhaps the NCAA should be totally replaced by a federally chartered corporation that is willing to institute meaningful reforms that go well beyond the proposals mentioned above. America’s colleges and universities are a national treasure. Should college sport be governed by an organization that appears to have put education on the sidelines?
Allen Sack, a professor in the college of business at the University of New Haven, played on the University of Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team. He is past president of the Drake Group
Between a presidential proposal rating colleges based in part on what graduates earn, studies linking specific majors to earning potential, and seemingly endless reports analyzing the return on investment of higher education, never have the economic implications of a college education been more important.
Faculty members in the liberal arts are, not surprisingly, resistant to the notion that an education can be reduced to a starting salary. Education, we insist, should prepare one for life — for work, for play, for relationships, for responsible citizenry. And when our students do ask questions about their job prospects, we are encouraging, if not precise. We remind students vaguely that critical thinking skills are highly sought-after by employers and then we refer students to our campus’s career centers to work with trained career professionals, whom we largely do not know.
Is this enough?
For years I thought it was enough, but with tuition and student debt loads continuing to rise and a public that seems increasingly impatient with the liberal arts, I’m no longer so inclined.
For the last ten years or so, I’ve been piecing together, often clumsily, a different answer with and for my students that has developed into a three-credit course on career exploration. Based on the premise that students can apply the writing and research skills they’ve developed in the liberal arts to launch their job searches, this course defends the choice of a liberal arts major, while at the same time confronting the challenging job market these students face.
It is an approach that has required me to become much more involved in my students’ job searches. It is not enough, I now realize, to refer students to career centers or to write glowing reference letters. It is not enough offer platitudes about problem-solving skills.
The course almost always begins by having students identify as precisely as possible the skills they have developed in their majors. When talking with English majors, for example, students almost always start with obvious skills such as research, writing, and critical thinking. But quickly they start unpacking these general categories, and we talk about using databases efficiently, the difficulties of synthesis, and the unappreciated skill of paraphrase.
We talk about interpretation, understanding historical context, writing for particular audiences, and explaining complex theoretical perspectives. Someone inevitably acknowledges that he has learned to discuss difficult subjects like racism and sexism. Someone else confesses that she used to be “bad” at peer review, but now knows how to give -- and receive -- constructive criticism. Someone else talks about developing an aesthetic sense, of appreciating a line of poetry for its sheer beauty.
The different directions this conversation can take have been instructive. The English majors almost always say something about how they have learned to disagree with others, without insisting that one person’s interpretation is right, another wrong, and they appreciate their ability to do so without resorting to the shouting matches they see on cable television.
But students in other disciplines, I’ve learned, are not so quick to claim the English major’s love of ambiguity. During one discussion, two political science majors bristled at the notion that there are no right answers. We, the political scientists proudly declared, learn to win debates. We learn to find the weaknesses in other people’s arguments, and we learn to defend our own positions. Not a bad skill, we all realized, for future policy makers, many of whom will work in a political context in which there are, unquestionably, winners and losers.
I always end this class activity the same way: by asking students to erase those skills we’ve written on the board that are not transferable to a professional setting. There is almost always a long pause, but someone inevitably offers up something: “Peer review. No one here is ever going to get a job peer reviewing poems.”
Before I even have a chance to use the eraser in my hand, however, someone else chimes in with some version of this story: “I’m probably not going to peer review a poem again, but I will have to give constructive criticism. I had a boss once who didn’t know how to give feedback, and it was awful. I know I can give criticism better than he did.”
In all the times I’ve done this exercise, we’ve never erased a single thing.
This activity is no magic bullet. Students still need to identify skills specific to their individual experiences and affinities, and they need lots of practice articulating these strengths to potential employers. But it can be start, a way of helping students link their majors with career options. Because it challenges students’ own perceptions of themselves as having chosen a “useless” major, it also serves as a particularly helpful launch to an entire course devoted to preparing for a job search.
But it is a path that works only if we, the faculty in the disciplines, willingly assume a role in career counseling. As fabulous as the career professionals I’ve worked with over the years are — and they are incredibly knowledgeable and talented — they cannot nor should be solely responsible for helping students recognize the discipline-specific skills they have developed.
Rather than refer students to career professionals, we need to partner with these counselors, in our classrooms and in their career centers. Only if we work collaboratively can we give our students in the liberal arts the career guidance they need and deserve.
Patricia Okker is professor of English and interim deputy provost at the University of Missouri at Columbia.