The corrosive power of big athletic sports programs

Now that the season for college football bowl games and championship tournaments is underway, raising interest in college foot ball to a high pitch, I want to revisit a college football scandal that has been bothering me. While the Penn State sexual abuse scandal was a high water mark of how big college sports programs corrupt almost everything it touches, there are other abuses that are less high profile. One that is endemic, especially at those colleges with big sports programs, is the pressure to let athletes slide by academically with lower expectations in order for them to retain their eligibility.

Sometimes this takes the form of faculty experiencing subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) pressures to go easy on any athletes enrolled in their courses. But more often, advisors steer athletes towards courses that are deemed to be ‘easy’ and the athletics programs provide them with extensive assistance and coaching and even doing the work for them so that they get the required grades, even if they are learning next to nothing

But the recent revelations at the University of North Carolina go well beyond that and provide evidence, if we needed it, about how deep the corruption can run. It turns out that student athletes had at their disposal an entire curriculum of fake courses that did not require them to attend any classes or do any work and yet gave them A and B grades. The classes did not even meet and the students had to submit a very short paper that was ‘graded’ by the department administrator.

More than 3,100 students, 47.6 percent of them athletes, were enrolled in and received credit for the phantom classes, most of which were created and graded solely by a single employee, Deborah Crowder. Ms. Crowder was a nonacademic who worked as the African studies department’s administrator and who told Mr. Wainstein that she had been motivated by a desire to help struggling athletes.

Some of the classes took the form of independent study courses in which the students never met the professor; others took the form of lecture courses in which the classes were supposed to meet at specific times and places but never did.

Ms. Crowder required students to turn in only a single paper, but the papers were often largely plagiarized or padded with “fluff,” the report said. She generally gave the papers A’s or B’s after a cursory glance. The classes were widely known on campus as “paper classes.”

This went on for 18 years! The sheer scale of this abuse has to mean that there was widespread awareness and a conspiracy of silence of the part of many people, especially since about half of the students taking these bogus courses were not even athletes and so the secret could not be contained within the small and tight-knit community of athletes and coaches.

NPR had a story on the UNC scandal with details about how the system worked and also an interview with the chancellor of the university. In it, she was asked about one philosophy department professor whose area was ethics (if you can imagine it) who sent out a disturbing email.

In this email, she says she didn’t look at a student’s paper, that a D grade would be fine. And that she wrote – figured it was a recycled paper, as in plagiarized. And she seemed completely untroubled by that.

The most disturbing thing about UNC scandal is that it a top-rated research university that takes pride in its academics so that if this kind of academic scandal can occur there, it could occur anywhere. Mike Rutherford speculates on why what he calls “one of the largest and most egregious events of its kind in the history of college athletics” seems to be getting swept under the rug. His most depressing guess is that people simply assume that this is standard practice, and that UNC’s mistake was that it just let things get out of hand.

There are some stories that make me glad to work at a university where the sports program plays the role it should truly play, as primarily being an outlet for fun and exercise and not as a money-making cut-throat venture. I have had athletes in my classes and they never asked for special treatment and were concerned about missing classes for away games, which occurred rarely.


  1. Mobius says

    As a graduate student I had some experience with student athletes, but not of the sort you mention.

    My first semester, I was teaching College Algebra and had one of the university’s football players in my class. He failed the first exam. The athletics department, rather than pull stunts like those you mention, enrolled the lad in a tutoring program and he managed to pass the class.

    The only other notable experience with athletes was in a business calculus class. The person was on the baseball team. After the final exam, he came pleading to me for some sort of help to pass the class. I pointed out he had made a ***26%*** on the final and it was a little late for help.

    In neither case did the athletics department attempt to influence me. But I do realize that there are many universities where this would not be the case.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    It occurs to me that the time demands on football players essentially amount to a full-time job, and then some. Even academically gifted students (which these are unlikely to be) would probably have difficulty succeeding with those constraints.

    Imagine what it would be like if pro sports teams were all supposed to work as employees for the cities they work for, as teachers and tax assessors and so forth. That would make just as much sense.

  3. anat says

    brucegee1962, in that case it is wrong to have athletes as full-time students. Have them take a class or two per term, extend the number of years they can study, but make sure that they get the education like any other student.

  4. Katydid says

    Here’s another aspect of college sports–those mandatory phys ed classes that every student has to take? They fund the sports programs. We learned this with the oldest child, who entered college with a black belt, teaching younger students and competing through a local, well-known martial arts studio. The same child was also a runner who competed in local races. Despite this, he was forced to take two pointless gym classes in order to get his undergrad degree.

    Why must the general public support the professional sports teams? College sports are just unpaid farm teams for professional sports–let professional sports pay for the football, baseball, and basketball teams.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *