Human Limits

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The NCAA vs. Reality

The most recent piece of bad news on the academic and financial integrity front for big time college sports in the United States is the news of a zombie major and related courses at the University of North Carolina. These courses were used to buff up the grades of “student-athletes” and make it easier for them to remain academically eligible. The news is especially troubling because the University of North Carolina (UNC) is an elite academic institution and a member of the Association of American Universities. This is a group of the 62 leading research institutions in the United States that includes the Ivy League, Stanford, and many major public universities.


Since the story broke I have had a number of e-mail exchanges with friends over the last week about this topic and the thing I find puzzling is why UNC had to go this far (or turn a blind eye) to keep marginal students eligible for big time and big money college sports. Some approaches used at the big schools to keep athletes eligible are legitimate and are known as “academic support services”. However, there are several approaches that can be used that are more or less “within” the rules but make it essentially possible to cheat and avoid a lot of scrutiny and thus get by. Here are some:


1.  Create an Easy Major

A number of schools have created “safe harbor” majors that generally lack rigor and can make it relatively easy for less able or less interested students to get the grades needed to be academically eligible to compete in sports. These schemes are well known and if UNC did not have such a major, my bet is they will develop one. If UNC had one, then the scandal makes them look even more incompetent than they are.


2.  Gaming Transfer Credits

It is possible for student athletes to take courses at junior colleges or via distance learning and use passing grades in such courses to remain eligible. If this is done discretely it can work well.   However, usually the word gets out and things ultimately implode.   My favorite story is one from the 1990s that focused on a small Christian Bible School that offered correspondence courses for ministers.   When interest in some of their offerings skyrocketed, the folks running the school felt their prayers had been answered and were gratified to know that college athletes were interested in biblical history. What really happened is that some assistant coaches had figured the school and its courses to be an easy mark to keep people eligible by systematically cheating on the tests and getting the needed grades. If this had stayed small time, it might still be going on.


3.  Johnny Football and On-Line Courses

The next big thing in the keep them eligible world is going to be on-line courses.   Johnny Manziel used this approach while at Texas A&M. My guess is that the next major academic scandal in college sports will have an on-line element.




There are all sorts of other strategies that have been used over the years and some great anecdotes about them. They include things like ghost written term papers and bogus class attendance. A less known problem is the academically qualified athlete who is discouraged from doing something rigorous because it might interfere with practice time or their commitment to the “the program”. This summer I talked with a mid-major basketball player who wanted to be a dentist but was shunted away from pre-dentistry into another major on the advice of his coach.   Did the coach have the player’s best interest at heart, or was he trying to ensure he developed a top mid-major program and then got a multi-million dollar offer from a bigger school? Most universities try to manage conflict of interest by their faculty who consult, start companies, or develop intellectual property. Maybe they should try it for their coaches and athletic departments. Maybe the NCAA should acknowledge the reality of what is going on and mandate it.


3 Responses to “The NCAA vs. Reality”

  1. October 27th, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Liz Tily says:

    I was in the NCAA on a gymnastics scholarship and I received a grade for a class I was never in. I only noticed it Bc it pulled my gps down. We also had to go to this massive study hall thing a couple times a week where everyone just did the football players work for them. NCAA was a wacky time!

  2. October 27th, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Liz Tily says:

    Gpa, not gps!

  3. October 27th, 2014 at 11:12 am

    George Brose says:

    At Oklahoma U. in the early 1960’s, we had to attend two study halls per week if we had a C or lower grade at mid term. There were tutors available in all subjects. I remember a football player arguing with a math tutor over a problem where the answer was in the back of the text book. The footballer’s comment was, “but that answer can’t be right.”

    Tutor’s reply, “Believe me, kid, the smart money is on the book.”

    Being a jock then was not far removed from boot camp mentality. If you missed a class, you had to meet the academic coordinator, Port Robertson, at 6:00am and run 50 times up the football stadium steps (about 50 rows in those days). Can you imagine the reaction if that type of enforcement were in place today? There would be twenty lawyers at the base of the stadium steps soliciting clients. Our javelin thrower was so tired after that morning stair running session that he went back to bed and slept through his 8:00am class.

    Still there were plenty of activities that were morally questionable even by today’s standards. There just weren’t as many rules to break.

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