How sports corrupts the educational system

I have written before about my hopes that educational institutions at the K-12 and collegiate level will abandon football. My argument then was that subjecting students to the high likelihood of head trauma was unethical and in addition that football was an expensive money sink with no upside except for a few colleges that made money from it.

But another argument that I should have also made is the one that trying to have winning teams leads schools into corrupt practices where both academics and ethics are sacrificed in pursuit of winning. This applies not just to football but also to basketball, another high-profile collegiate sport.

Mark Esposito writes about the scandalous situation that arose recently at the University of North Carolina after an instructor and advisor Mary Willingham revealed that some of the athletes could barely read.

Willingham’s preliminary figures found that of 183 football and basketball players at UNC from 2004-12, 60 percent were reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level. Prof. Willingham even encountered athletes who could not read or write at all when she worked as an academic tutor to the athletic department where she would do such scholarly work as helping football players sound out the word “Wis-con-sin.”

It got even worse. It was found that some of the athletes were directed towards certain courses that never met at all and for which they got passing grades.

The university president and provost attacked her veracity and of course so did the crazy fans for whom a winning team is more important than anything else.

Mary had been reprimanded by troglodyte fans both inside and outside of the UNC administration for the audacious act of laying truth at the feet of power. Mary had taken on the hoariest (maybe “whoriest” is the better choice of words) of gods on many major college campuses today — the big, bad revenue sports.

The chancellor of the university later acknowledged that there was a problem.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt admitted for the first time to the school’s board of trustees that the university had “failed students for years” by offering bogus classes, forging professors’ names and changing grades to keep athletes eligible.

But UNC is hardly an isolated case. The appallingly low graduation rates of students in major collegiate athletic programs, despite all these corrupt practices to push them through, have long been a national scandal. But there seems to be no concerted effort to change things, with each scandal being treated as an isolated case instead of being a symptom of a systemic problem.


  1. says

    The whole problem would solve itself if college football players could demand a salary. Suddenly, there’d be no reason to bother hiding the whole thing under the aegis of a university system at all.

  2. colnago80 says

    The appallingly low graduation rates of students in major collegiate athletic programs, despite all these corrupt practices to push them through, have long been a national scandal.

    That’s only part of the scandal. As the late Joe Paterno said, long before he blotted his copybook, graduation rates are only part of the story. What they are majoring in is equally as important?

  3. unbound says

    Minor point:

    …football was an expensive money sink with no upside except for a few colleges that made money from it…

    I’m not sure that is a correct assertion. I do know that football at our local high school funds approximately 80% of the rest of the sports, and our football team does not have direct sponsors (so there isn’t a few big sponsors of our football team that creates a high amount of money). The fact of the matter is that football is the big spectator draw that produces a lot of ticket receipts and a lot of concession sales (my wife is the concession manager at our local high school) far in excess of any other sport (including basketball which is a distant 2nd in concession sales and ticket receipts). I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same at the college level.

    On the bigger point, I agree 100%. Athletics are too much of a factor in what should be a predominant education process. I think it is time to modify Title IX again to balance out athletic and academic scholarships and funding in much the same way that it requires athletic funding balance due to sex, race, etc.

  4. unbound says

    @2 – I agree. I was fascinated to find out that West Virginia University offers (mostly for its athletes) the ability to graduate with a degree in minors (3 minors called a Bachelor in Multidisciplinary Studies). I have no idea what someone is prepared to do in life with only minors.

  5. Chiroptera says

    I remember when I was at the University of Colorado. Large parts of the state are very rural and very conservative. Remember, these are the people who hate critical thinking and are afraid of basing social policies on reasoned analysis of empirical data. The only legitimate reason for the existence of the University of Colorado is to support the football team.

    So, yeah, these people were worried that academics would corrupt athletics.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    Northwestern football raises complicated labor questions

    Do college athletes work for their school or play for their school?

    That’s the question raised by a group of Northwestern football players who on Tuesday announced their intent to unionize and be recognized as employees under federal law.

    Along with longtime college athlete advocate Ramogi Huma, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter announced the formation of the College Athletes Players Association, which is backed by the United Steelworkers. Colter, who said the current college sports governance system “resembles a dictatorship,” added it was time players “had a seat at the table.”

  7. Chiroptera says

    Jim H., #6:

    That should have been “For these people [the consevative promoters of ignorance and superstition], the only legitimate reason for….”

    That somehow got cut out as I was editing and re-editing that comment. Sorry for that.

  8. justsomeguy says

    I went to high school in a small town that’s neither wealthy or suburban, but close enough in proximity to wealthy suburbs that the sports teams would compete on occasion. Well, more “play against each other” than “compete;” there was never any real competition there. Not that my school’s administration didn’t try. A perpetual budget crisis resulted in a constant string of cuts to various arts and academic programs, bus service, and maintenance. At no point was the possibility of cutting the football budget even considered. And the team still lost more than it won.

  9. Matt G says

    There is a great story about a school in Texas (of all places!) about a principal who eliminated football, poured the money into academics (particularly mathematics) and completely turned the school around. Perhaps someone here knows more about this story. I think it was written up in The Atlantic or some similar periodical.

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