Delusions of academic opportunity
As a student-athlete at a Division I school, one is often faced with the question of which part of his or her hyphenated descriptor actually describes her occupation better.
Recent scandals at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill concerning independent study courses and a 148-word essay on Rosa Parks that earned an A-minus seem to indicate that the student half of the descriptor can be laughable. A report from The (Raleigh) News & Observer in 2011 discovered that some student-athletes received grades for classes they had not even taken, and that several independent study classes were billed as lecture classes but never actually met.
Just last week, Mary Willingham revealed in an interview with ESPN that a UNC student-athlete had received an A-minus for a 148-word essay on Rosa Parks in one of these independent studies classes. In the same interview, former UNC football player Deunta Williams commented that the primary purpose of the academic advisors for the student-athletes was to ensure that the athletes would remain eligible to play by maintaining the requisite GPA.
UNC-Chapel Hill isn’t the only school to succumb to the allure of passing its student-athletes academically for the sake of a winning season. A 2006 New York Times article reported on the directed-reading courses at Auburn University that allowed one of the university’s well-known football players to be honored as a scholar-athlete for his work as a Sociology major. But he had only taken directed-reading classes, which did not require attendance and entailed very little work.
Even without such explicit efforts to create no-attendance, low-workload classes, student-athletes at many Division I schools still have to face the burden of weighing their two jobs. As an athlete, they are allowed to have 20 hours per week of scheduled practice time. That does not, however, include getting to and from practice, preparation and recovery time before and after practice or highly recommended individual practices. What starts out as a part-time job can quickly become more than that and can sometimes even turn into a full-time job.
In the face of this reality stands NCAA’s requirement that all student athletes must “[b]e in good academic standing according to the standards” of their school, and “[b]e enrolled in at least a minimum full-time baccalaureate degree program” (i.e., at least 12 credit hours) and “maintain satisfactory progress toward that degree.” Essentially, student-athletes are not officially expected to be any less studious than any other non-athlete student at the university.
Most importantly, the student-athletes themselves have no official authority to contest the terms of their agreement with the school and the NCAA when they take an athletic scholarship. In extreme cases, and certainly when a student-athlete is sitting in the library finishing a paper after a particularly exhausting workout, they can feel as though they have lost autonomy over their own education as either their own physical health or their academic standing suffers in the face of the need to be the best athlete possible.
Granted, there are also several benefits to being a Division I student-athlete. Your closet is filled with branded workout clothes, and you probably have access to a locker room within convenient walking distance of where your practices occur. If you are at Duke, you have access to a special study room and a special set of tutors and academic advisors who are ready to help you when you are plugging through a particularly difficult class. The fact remains, however, that these facilities and resources are not available because student-athletes demanded them as a part of their contract with the university. Rather, these things exist because Duke wants to maintain its good academic standing alongside its athletic prowess.
Importantly, no one is looking out for the best interests of the student-athletes. No one is charged with ensuring that student-athletes are able to fulfill their two roles to equal extents and still remain happy and healthy young adults. The National Labor Relations Board decided last week that students who receive full athletic scholarships to Northwestern University to play football for a Big Ten conference school have a legal right to unionize under federal law as employees of the institution. The decision was based in part on a finding that the school values the athletic performance of its student-athletes more than their academic success.
If this decision stands, it could have a negative effect on the ability of student-athletes to graduate from the university with meaningful academic transcripts. While the College Athletes Players Association could help ensure that student-athletes who have graduated continue to receive medical care for the injuries they sustained while playing for the school, its current focus does not include any restrictions on practice time or required academic excuses from practice.
I may just be an exceptionally nerdy former student-athlete, but I think it is not unreasonable to argue that schools agree to give student-athletes the opportunity to get a college education. What is unreasonable is that student-athletes are encouraged, either implicitly or explicitly, to put athletics before academics in almost all circumstances.
Joline Doedens is a second-year law student. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Send Joline a message on Twitter @jydoedens.