Out of their league

Out of their league

One of the things that struck me most while on exchange at the University of North Carolina (UNC) is that it really is like being in a movie. While there are no meticulous canteen table partitions according to social status, on the playing field, which is where college spirit bursts forth – in the same zeal as American patriotism – the image is exactly like those scenes in Remember the Titans, Rudy, The Blind Side, etc…

But college athletics isn’t just about the marching bands, twirling batons, cheerleaders doing push-ups every touchdown, standing up every two minutes for a different cheer and belting out “I’m a Tar Heel Born”. It is also a lucrative business. Division I athletic programs generated USD $8.7 billion revenue in the 2009-2010 academic year.

When I was at UNC, campus newspapers were reporting the last of a major academic scandal uncovered during the summer off-season. UNC’s football team plays within the top division of the NCAA – the revenue-generating end of intercollegiate athletics. While college athletics carries an amateur status, unlike in Australia, it is an incredibly profitable industry; with substantial fan base rooted in alumni and a sports media that fosters rivalries and ratings, leading to a benevolent cycle where games are broadcast, reaching an even wider fan base. In addition, college sports are a stepping stone in turning pro. College athletic programs provide players with important training and coaching facilities.

Athletics is so prominent that it overshadows the very purpose of going to college. Oklahoma State football coach Les Miles supposedly told his team that it was “Academics first” while holding up two fingers, and “Football second”, holding up one. NCAA regulations however prescribe GPA requirements in order to remain eligible. Even then, the battle between athletics and academics seems to be won by the former. GPAs for division I athletes must be above 90% of the minimum overall GPA necessary to graduate at the institution (with the percentage gradually increasing to 100% by the beginning of senior year).

The academic scandal that I just missed at UNC embroiled 9 football players who had their papers written by a tutor. A more recent three-month investigation by the NCAA reveals that the African and Afro-American Studies department oversaw anomalies such as unauthorised grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time. The defence is that it affected all enrolled students, not just athletes. But the subjects offered by this department has been a constant target for college athletes in order to maintain a GPA in essentially ‘bogus’ classes;reportedly, 67% of enrolled students were athletes. Email correspondence between academic advisers for athletes and subject coordinators reveals that some subjects were especially set up for athletes as a favour.

The temptation to cheat academics is, perhaps in some cases, irresistible. UNC reading specialist, Mary Willingham, has worked with Tar Heel athletes who have never read a book. Traditionally, members of the men’s basketball team used to take no-show classes until a new academic counsellor, appalled at the situation, prevented them from enrolling. Yet enrolments from the football team continued. Willingham also states that numerous football and basketball players go to university with academic histories and diagnostic results that showed them incapable of doing college-level work, especially at top public universities.

Academic counsellors are known to turn a blind eye, or even set their athletes on the ‘easy path’. Previous Oklahoma State football players have alleged that academic counsellors schedule them in classes with exceptionally lax professors and ‘pigeonholed’ them into majors without consulting them. The main focus was to keep the best players eligible by any means.

Willingham has stated that athletes in non-revenue sports are generally capable of college-level work, but lowered academic standards for football and basketball players – known as ‘special admits’ – bring in athletes who lack the required academic ability. Such dynamics, she says, are destined to produce cheating. For students with prodigious athletic ability, but little academic capacity, the marginal benefit of cheating is high. This is more so when the incentive of going to college is to play sports rather than learn. Despite individual cases of athletes who don’t go down the ‘easy path’, too many are being shepherded to pursue the incentives of the industry.

Although student athletes hardly keep any of the revenue they generate, the incentive to keep playing, and to play well, is much higher than for learning. Playing at college level is the stepping stone for those who want to play professionally; college matches are broadcast, analysed and commentated on, exposing talent, generating fame. And while student athletes hardly keep any of the money they earn, there are still some economic incentives to play well. Oklahoma State players recall receiving cash payments from boosters (NCAA regulates that boosters can only financially support teams and not individual players) after a game, sometimes as inconspicuous as an envelope in their locker. If a player found a new pair of socks in his locker postgame, chances are there’s cash inside them. The amount paid for a specific play was not always the same, quarterback hurries may be worth $50, a tackle between $75 to $100, and a sack from $200 to $250. Boosters have also been known to throw parties for players, fund holidays, and pay rent.

The blogosphere frequently laments NCAA’s half-hearted investigations into rule-breaches. Some even welcome a return of the proverbial ‘death penalty’ handed out to Southern Methodist University (SMU) after massive NCAA rule violations were discovered, including a slush fund used for under-the-table payments to football players from mid-1970s to 1986. The ‘death penalty’ was a cancellation of SMU’s entire 1987 schedule. Over the following 20 years, the Mustangs only had one winning season. Some also say that coaches should be held more accountable for cheating. In the case of Oklahoma State where academic counsellors were doing the actual cheating, the philosophy of “Academics second” is engendered by the coach. Of course, another incentive to cheat is that everyone else is cheating too. Among the schools that have won titles since 1936, only Penn State and Brigham Young University have never had a major violation in football.

With such incentives, college sport has inevitably been commercialised at the cost of academic corruption. A paper published by the Washington Law Review claims that NCAA athletes in division I revenue-generating sports are better defined as employees under the law. They are compensated for playing with athletic scholarships (a quid pro quo), thoroughly controlled by their employers on which they are also financially dependent. Relationships with their universities are not primarily academic but largely commercial. And finally, intercollegiate athletics is managed and generates revenue like a professional enterprise, abandoning amateurism in all respects save one: player wages.