College athletics can be very fun. Standing with thousands of other people and hollering letter after letter of the “Minnesota" in the Minnesota Rouser with your fellow Gophers after a touchdown is an incredible feeling. As the Gophers do their usual roller coaster-of-a-season routine, your heart is in the amusement car with the team, too, feeling the same disappointment and joy. The day of the game is an event in itself. Aren’t you counting down until gameday?
It seems that we have somehow forgotten the college part of athletics. Not specifically that our athletes are somehow separate from the rest of us or aren’t good representatives for a university. Rather, we as a society seem to have forgotten that behind the spectacle, athletes attend a university where they have to go to class and get an education, too.
The NCAA is a particularly strong and concerning case of educational neglect in college athletics. The regulatory agency controls college athletics, but has demonstrated time after time it has no regard for the minds of its athletes.
The University of North Carolina’s recent academic fraud scandal reveals the NCAA’s severe ineptitude as a regulatory agency of college athletics. A manager within UNC's African and Afro-American studies department created a set of “shadow curriculum” for student athletes. Within this new curriculum, there were “paper classes,” or classes which never met and only required one paper for credit. A secretary would then grade these often poorly written and plagiarized papers and give students an A or B.
The Chronicle of Higher-Education describes how “athletes, particularly football and basketball players, enrolled in the classes at high rates, received better grades than their nonathlete peers, and were steered toward the classes by counselors.” The AFAM program became a crutch for the athletics department to keep its athletes academically eligible. Athletes earned a 3.61 average GPA in paper classes, yet couldn’t even muster more than a 2.0 GPA in non-AFAM classes.
The NCAA never punished UNC for allowing decades of systemic academic fraud. The organization did an investigation into UNC’s academics, yet never meted out a punishment for the University — no stripped wins, suspensions or fines. Bloomberg View’s Joe Nocera describes how the NCAA accused UNC of violating its rules, then simply withdrew the allegations when UNC pushed back, giving, in effect, exactly what the University asked for: no punishment.
Sports writers have described the NCAA’s decision to pull back punishments as a new loophole in college athletics. Universities can now pedal sham classes to its athletes with no fear of potential punishment; they know that the NCAA won’t do anything about it. There might be a slight dip in public reputation, but now the football team can get a 4.0.
The cruel irony in this is that it hurts the people it is supposed to serve. Many athletes come in with low academic ability, but will never receive the kind of remedial education they need if they attend sham classes. Universities claim to pay their athletes via scholarships, yet the “education” one receives through this scholarship is a lie. The University exploits the athlete when it gives him or her a substandard education, like when I pay you worthless money for a good. There is payment, but no actual value received.
The NCAA must penalize academic fraud. It calls itself a regulatory body for college athletics, but has demonstrated that it does not take that role seriously. Athletes deserve to receive a proper education, just like you and me.