The Big Threat to Academic Freedom No One’s Talking About

College athletes lack the rights other students enjoy because those rights have been subsumed by business imperatives, write Stephen T. Casper, Jay M. Smith and Nathan Kalman-Lamb.

January 20, 2022
 
 
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The moral panic sweeping the country about the freedom of students to express themselves on university campuses is on point—just not in the way you think. While some people take aim at the “cancel culture” that they argue is rampant in higher education institutions, for a large contingent of students—those whom the National Collegiate Athletics Association and institutions have branded “student athletes”—the absence of academic freedom is a product of design. And that raises fundamental questions about the ability of universities to satisfy their most basic obligations.

The constraints placed upon the educational freedom of athletes are not an incidental issue in the world of higher education. They challenge a fundamental premise upon which the system is based: that universities exist to provide students a wide-ranging, life-changing educational experience.

The fact is that many universities deliberately shortchange athletes, particularly, but not exclusively, those in the highest-revenue sports of Division I football and men’s basketball, often referred to as “big-time college sports.” Whether it is academic clustering that funnels athletes into classes and majors perceived to be less arduous, surveillance systems that monitor athlete movements in and out of the classroom, practice demands that dictate course schedules, television commitments that take players out of classes, or team rules that limit what athletes are permitted to tell the world about their experiences, students who are athletes have little choice but to accept profound violations of their academic freedom.

A pervasive atmosphere of “status coercion,” as described by University of Buffalo sociologist Erin Hatton, aggravates the problem. Players develop the instinct to accede to the demands of their coaches—even abusive ones—for fear that they will lose out on the athletic opportunities they came to college to pursue.

Academic freedom should ensure students many rights, including the right to participate in the shaping of their educational experiences, the right to criticize their universities and even the right to organize against those institutions when they refuse to recognize student interests. As Henry Reichman explained in his recent book, Understanding Academic Freedom, if faculty academic freedom concerns the freedom to teach, student academic freedom is about the freedom to learn. This freedom should guarantee that “students will be evaluated and judged solely on an academic basis,” he told us, “not according to their personal status or opinions, and that their broader rights to free expression on and off campus will not be abridged.” Alas, that is not the case for athletes.

Former Wisconsin all-American football player Chris Borland puts it to us bluntly: “College athletes do not have the academic freedom of the general student population.” Even the academic tutoring services that athletic departments provide, he notes, “aid the athletic department’s needs first and the athletes’ needs second.” Operating in an environment “where sports come first,” he adds, players “simply don’t have the time to discover and explore their academic curiosities.” Their lack of time and the tutoring programs’ focus on eligibility concerns “are intractable problems for athletes in college sports.”

In short, when universities recruit athletes, they bring them into a system of rules and regulations that imposes enormous constraints on student freedom and educational decision making. Not all rules are bad, of course. At its creation in 1906, the NCAA sought to use rules to cut down on the violence that had led to so many deaths on the gridiron.

Yet over the next century, the dying unfortunately continued. And meanwhile, the monopolistic enterprise over which the NCAA presided metastasized into an incredibly lucrative industry, emboldened by its rule-making authority. The profit splitting between the largest athletic programs and the NCAA all but guaranteed that national office executives and university presidents would surrender control over players to the athletic moneymaking machine. College athletes lack the academic freedom rights other students enjoy because those rights have been subsumed by business imperatives.

Athletics and academics are not inherently incompatible. Division III sports thrive within an “academics first” culture. But at the “big-time” level, academics and athletics exist in tension with one another. That relationship is approaching a breaking point.

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Coaching compensation escalates while many universities slash academic and administrative budgets. On the athletic side of campus, Black athletes make up the majority of the football and basketball teams, while on the academic side, many university administrators spout a rhetoric of diversity while failing students of color year after year. In a remarkable recent instance, a head football coach and his associates reportedly violently invaded a lecture hall to chase away students and the lecturing professor “so the team could use the room.” The clash of priorities has never been starker.

As many of you read this, the NCAA and universities are preparing to vote on a new constitution and path forward for college athletics following the unanimous verdict against them over the question of whether student athletes could receive education-based benefits as compensation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled emphatically that the NCAA was not above the law.

The drafters of that constitution may wish to heed the views of the college accrediting body that presides over the epicenter of current college athlete union organizing. The WASC Senior Colleges and University Commission, accreditor of the University of California system, affirms that a core condition of accreditation is that “the institution publicly states its commitment to academic freedom for faculty, staff, and students, and acts accordingly.” As for athletics, they state that “intercollegiate programs should be demonstrably constructive and never exploitative for particular interests of the institution.” If students who participate in athletics “are subject to different institutional policies and procedures, the institution must be able to explain and justify those policies in relation to the purposes of the institution.”

Canceling the unjust constraints that intercollegiate athletics places on the freedoms of the students who wear their university colors should be the first objective of NCAA officials and university presidents. If they once again fail to provide athletes academic freedom—as well as the tools and wherewithal athletes need to defend their rights, including recourse to collective bargaining—they will be neglecting their academic missions for the unforgivable motive of raw profit. And if the universities who compose the NCAA don’t right this wrong, they deserve to be stripped of their accreditation. Accrediting bodies, take note.

Bio

Stephen T. Casper is a professor of history at Clarkson University. His research focuses on the history of the mind and brain sciences. He discloses that he is retained by plaintiffs in pending concussion litigation against many sports organizations, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Jay M. Smith is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he teaches a course on big-time college sports and the history of athletes’ rights. Nathan Kalman-Lamb is a lecturing fellow at Duke University, where he teaches on labor, inequality and sport. He is also the author of Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport (Fernwood, 2018) and co-author of The End of College Football: Exploitation in the Ivory Tower and on the Gridiron (under contract with University of North Carolina Press).

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