On the mythology of the "student-athlete"

Do universities provide "student-athletes" with a proper education in exchange for their athletic performance on the field?

I suppose it depends on the sport. But for the high-profile, high-profit sports, it is not clear that athletes are getting what they deserve from the university. Football and basketball athletes who participate on high-profile teams, the ones we watch on TV, are engaged in a highly profitable activity (Final Four rakes in more advertising dollars than the NFL playoffs) - but due to NCAA rules, the profits do not trickle down to the athletes - they require college profit centers student-athletes to remain "amateurs."

Scholarships are provided to these student athletes, of course - many of these highly skilled athletes are provided full-ride scholarships to excellent universities.

But are student-athletes getting a good deal?

A California federal court is exploring the issue of whether or not student-athletes are getting their fair share of the enormous profits reaped by the NCAA. From a Chronicle of Higher Ed article:
The plaintiffs, who include Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star, and other current and former Bowl Subdivision football players and Division I men’s basketball players, say the NCAA has unfairly prevented them from earning a share of the billions of dollars of revenue the association brings in from television broadcasts and other commercial products in which they appear. They are seeking an injunction that would put an end to the NCAA’s rules limiting their ability to profit from their images.

The NCAA denies the allegations and has vigorously defended its system, arguing that its rules are necessary to maintain competitive balance and to protect academic values. NCAA athletes are students first, the association has long argued, and allowing them to license their images would create a "bidding war" for players that would undermine their ability to be effective students.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say they plan to poke holes in the NCAA’s education claims, calling witnesses who will expose details about colleges' channeling of athletes into easy classes and putting extensive demands on their schedules. Those commitments, which can require up to 40 hours a week of their time, prevent many athletes from receiving a meaningful education, the plaintiffs say.

Certainly, the NCAA wants to do nothing that would "would undermine their ability to be effective students."

However, do highly profitable athletes have the time to be "effective students"? That's debatable. In March, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling that paves the way for Northwestern football players to unionize. According to the NLRB ruling, the time college athletes on their high-profile sport far outweighs the time spent in a classroom - this makes them "employees" rather than students. Of course, this case focuses solely on football players who, at Northwestern, tend to graduate from that highly selective school in high numbers.

In North Carolina, there's a question of a different sort being debated about the role of the "student-athlete" at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Has the oldest public university in the country lived up to its promise of educating its student-athletes?

Rashad McCants, member of UNC's 2005 championship basketball team, says no. According to a Raleigh News Observer story, McCants says that to keep him eligible, "...tutors wrote his papers, that he went to classes about half the time at UNC-Chapel Hill and that no-show courses in the Afro- and African-American Studies Department, or AFAM, kept him eligible." McCants also links his coach to the practice of steering students to no-show or "paper classes" - where the only requirement was a paper at the end of the term.

Roy Williams, UNC-CH basketball coach and the highest paid public employee in the state of North Carolina, is shocked, SHOCKED that one of his former players would accuse him of academic fraud.

But he also offers this peculiar perspective on these questionable paper classes:
“I thought that meant that a class was on paper but it didn’t really exist, and then come to find out people are using that terminology ‘paper classes’ to signify independent study courses that you do papers. ... I’ve been told by people that some of those are really, really good. It shows a lot of discipline because you’re self-directed. If my players took independent study courses that were offered by this university for a reason that the university thought they were valuable, my players, if they took those courses, did the work, and I’m proud of that part of it.”

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/06/07/3919631/williams-shocked-by-mccants-interview.html#storylink=cpy
Williams seems not to have been reading his university's press releases about these paper classes; his university, the employer paying him millions of dollars to coach those young men, does not think these particular classes were valuable. From the university's website, a message from the new Chancellor, Carol Folt (who was not at UNC when these infractions were happening, FYI):
“The scrutiny that is taking place here is, of course, part of a much larger national conversation about the role and the impact of college sports and even further about the commitment schools are making to ensure that students are receiving the support they need to succeed in the classroom, to advance to graduation, as well as on the playing field....
...Even though there is no evidence that anomalous courses in the since-renamed African and Afro-American studies department were initiated to benefit student-athletes, nearly half of the students who took those courses were student-athletes, she said.

“Offering courses that were unsupervised was not reflective of the standards that we expect for our University,” Folt said. “All of those students who were involved in those courses deserved better from us.”

And for years, she said, the University permitted these fraudulent courses to continue because of a lack of academic oversight. “This, too, was wrong and it has undermined our integrity and our reputation, and it’s created a very unhealthy atmosphere of distrust,” Folt said.
 UNC has acknowledged that it offered no-show classes - but because they were not only offered to athletes, they're clearly not a part of an unhealthy focus on cheating athletes of their academic accomplishments. They're just the result of a "lack of academic oversight" that many athletes utilized to jack up their GPA and remain eligible.

Since these infractions came to light several years ago, UNC has taken several different actions to address this problem. The university has fired Julius Nyang’oro, the chairman of the African American Studies department, where these classes were clustered. They've launched numerous investigations into the allegations of academic "irregularities." They've repeatedly attacked Mary Willingham, the whistle-blower, resulting in her resignation from her post as a reading specialist at UNC-CH.

But it's a problem that just won't die. McCants claims these "fraudulent" classes helped him to go from academic probation to the Dean's list. And he was not the only basketball player from the 2005 championship team to be enrolled in these courses - he's one of five key players on the championship team to be enrolled in these courses.

All this makes me wonder if UNC-CH would have won at all if these five key players were not academically eligible to play. 

It is highly likely that this problem of the "student-athlete" is not isolated to Chapel Hill. Perhaps, as Taylor Branch wrote in The Atlantic in 2011, it's simply "the shame of college sports."

Perhaps, however, it is time to stop ignoring this issue. Perhaps it is time instead to acknowledge that these players in highly lucrative college sports are professional athletes, and since universities - like UNC - are not providing these students with an education, let's pay them their due, in cash, as a salary. It seems only fair.


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