The NCAA and the Athletes It Fails

April 17, 2011

How we treat the young people on our campuses whom we often euphemistically call "student athletes" is essentially a moral issue. Some of those students, after all, generate millions of dollars for their coaches, athletic directors, and institutions, yet we have failed, in turn, to make sure they have legitimate experiences as students.

That is one of the concerns of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, on which I have served as the representative of the University of Texas at Austin for the last three years. So I welcomed the open and honest look at the NCAA's role in big-time college sports by Gerald S. Gurney that recently appeared in The Chronicle.

What would it entail to do better by those top athletes?

  • They need to be placed at educational institutions suited to their academic preparation and be provided with the tools to play the most important game of their college careers: the competition with true peers in the classroom.
  • They need to have time to study and to explore elective courses so as to choose a major and develop secondary interests that will serve them well the rest of their lives. And they need to do this, just like regular students, on their own initiative.
  • They need to get their degrees before their aid runs out.
  • Most of them need to be disabused of the dream that they will "go pro."

As the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Mark A. Emmert, told coalition members at a meeting in Chicago in January, only a tiny fraction of NCAA student athletes will have careers as professional athletes. There are about 400,000 student athletes nationwide, and 99.5 percent of them will spend their lives doing something other than playing professional sports. Right now there are grave problems in all four of those areas.

Gurney, who is president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics, rightly describes the NCAA's two measures of how well college athletes are doing in the classroom—the Academic Progress Rate and the Graduation Success Rate—as "manufactured."

The Academic Progress Rate, or APR, is designed so that students can be fully compliant even if they complete only 80 percent of the courses needed for a degree after four years. Moreover, year-to-year eligibility requirements are lax to the point of being farcical. Consider U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's complaint about the poor academic performances, especially in regard to athletes who belong to minority groups, by many teams in the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. If the players are performing so poorly academically, how can they be eligible for the tournaments? As Duncan wrote last month in an opinion piece for The Washington Post, "Last year, out of more than 6,000 NCAA intercollegiate sports teams, one squad in men's basketball was banned from postseason play because of a poor academic record."

There are three reasons so many poor academic performers squeaked through to be eligible to play.

First, the APR makes it possible for students to maintain eligibility for a season or two with academic-achievement levels that do not prepare them to finish their degrees. For example, they may complete as few as two courses in a semester, maintaining average GPA's of 1.8 at the end of their freshman year, 1.9 at the end of their sophomore year, and 2.0 at the end of three years. In this age of grade inflation, when the average GPA of all undergraduate students in all courses at the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, is 3.09, the sports GPA targets are hardly achievements.

Second, colleges are not penalized for substandard APR performances. An APR of 925 works out to a 50 percent six-year graduation-success rate, but according to the results of a study by the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance released last fall, 72 of 327 Division I basketball teams failed to meet that standard. Still, almost no penalties were meted out.

Third, programs can offload academically substandard students without statistical penalties by having them "transfer" to other programs or by registering them as having "gone pro." In truth, the Academic Progress Rate and the Graduation Success Rate serve as smoke screens for the big-time sports programs to keep exploiting student athletes without making it possible for many of them to be students. And the NCAA enables this kind of immoral treatment.

The commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, Jim Delany, told coalition members in Chicago that the NCAA cannot impose continuing eligibility standards without considering admissions standards. By permitting student athletes to attend universities and colleges for which they are not truly academically prepared, the NCAA is setting many of them up for failure or for success only by sleight of hand and/or perversion of the whole notion of true education: through special conference courses, soft courses taught by sports-booster faculty, majors designed to be soft, special study centers and tutors, and simple online courses. And though the NCAA wisely mandates that student athletes put in no more than 20 hours per week on sports so they have time to study, its own recent survey shows that student athletes in big-time sports put in nearly 45 hours per week.

Gurney knows from long experience what he is talking about. What he did not say is that the NCAA leadership will never take action that will kill the golden geese that generate huge television revenues and support the high salaries of its executives. The greed at student athletes' expense that we are witnessing now has been with us for at least 80 years.

Emmert has said that student athletes in big-time sports are students and should not be compensated by sharing a portion of all the revenues they generate. His reasoning? They are no different from students in performance arts like theater and music. Yet that analogy is false because students in performing arts do not generate money that pays big salaries to their professors or pays for the buildings in which they study and perform. Such specious reasoning does little to defend what is after all an indefensible exploitation of many big-time student athletes, who, after six, five, four, or fewer years, are left without degrees, without money in their pockets, and with nowhere to go.

Thomas G. Palaima is a professor of classics and director of the program in Aegean scripts and prehistory at the University of Texas at Austin.