The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The UNC fake class investigation and the ‘myth’ of the student-athlete

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The numbers alone are surprising. At the University of North Carolina, more than 3,100 students, many of whom were athletes, took phantom classes in a “shadow curriculum,” netting high marks despite the fact that the classes never met and there wasn’t any work beyond a final paper no one read. The scheme ran for years, between 1993 and 2011, and the athletes “didn’t have to take notes, have to stay awake … they didn’t have to meet with professors … they didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material.”

But once past the initial shock of those numbers — or the assessment’s candor — there is little that surprises in the news. There’s nothing new about academic chicanery when it comes to student-athletes, the very term increasingly exposed as a “myth,” in the words of one professor at the University of Notre Dame.

It was the same thing at the University of Michigan. In 2008, the Ann Arbor News reported that a professor taught a course not offered by the university for the sole purpose of improving the grade-point averages of athletes.

It was the same thing at Kansas State University. In 2008, USA Today reported that athletes were “clustering” in non-demanding majors at several major universities that “didn’t prepare them for post-sports careers.”

It was the same thing at Stanford. In 2011, the Stanford Daily reported the school offered an “easy” course list for athletes that included classes such as “Beginning Improvising” and “Social Dances of North America III.”

The matter of student-athletes gliding through school unencumbered by academic rigor is an issue often reported, but one that nonetheless persists at numerous institutions. It represents another way that universities take advantage of their student-athletes. Not only are athletes forbidden from profiting from the lucrative sports in which they participate, but they’re sometimes guided — either tacitly or explicitly — into courses that don’t prepare them for a life outside sports.

“You’re not there to get an education,” Rashad McCants, a former University of North Carolina basketball player, recently told ESPN. “You’re there to make revenue for the college.”

The NCAA insists on the term “student-athlete.” It implies that athletes, while playing a sport that requires total dedication, have the mental acuity and time to academically perform on par with non-athletes. According to the NCAA, “student-athletes must, therefore, be students first.”

It’s a pleasant fiction, said Gary Gutting of the University of Notre Dame. According to the NCAA’s own surveys, he wrote in the New York Times, “football and men’s basketball players identify themselves more strongly as athletes than as students, gave more weight in choosing their college to athletics than to academics and … spend more time on athletics than on their studies (and a large majority say they spend as much or more time on sports during the off-season).”

They get scholarship money if they’re good enough, but it’s the equivalent of a paycheck, a National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled in March. They are paid to play, not study, he said, agreeing with a players union that in state schools at least, student-athletes should be permitted to organize unions.

These athletes present a curious paradox. The athlete would need to be more academically gifted than the non-athlete to spend all that time on sports every week and still compete with traditional students in the classroom. That rarely happens, Gutting added, finding the rate of graduation for football players is 16 percent below the college average — for basketball players, 25 percent below the average. “Even these numbers understate the situation,” he added, “since colleges provide under-qualified athletes with advisers who point them toward easier courses and majors.”

This has been a problem for decades. According to a 1985 study in the Sociology of Education, many athletes arrive on campus excited and optimistic about their academic career. “However, their athletic, social, and classroom experiences lead them to become progressively detached from academics,” the report found. “As a result, they make pragmatic adjustments, abandoning their earlier aspirations and expectations and gradually resigning themselves to inferior academic performance.”

To solve the problem, some say just pay the athletes. At least that would allow them, especially the ones not bound for the pros, to get something out of their time at school. Others, such as Florida State University Professor David Pargman, simply say: “End the charade: Let athletes major in sports.”

“Why do we impose upon young, talented and serious-minded high-school seniors the imperative of selecting an academic major that is, more often than not, completely irrelevant to, or at least inconsistent with, their heartfelt desires and true career objectives: to be professional athletes?”