Athletics Advisers' Ethical Dilemma

Under pressure to keep players eligible, academic advisers struggle to help them just enough, but not too much

Norm Shafer for The Chronicle

Sarah Armstrong, an academic adviser at Virginia Tech, with football coaches. She embraces her role in students’ lives, she says, but won’t check in with them to make sure they’re going to class.
October 24, 2014

Back in the mid-2000s, Bruce A. Smith had an enviable commute. His Telegraph Avenue apartment was less than two miles from the University of California at Berkeley, where he worked as an academic adviser to athletes.

On his way to work each day, Mr. Smith would drive past the home of a Cal basketball player, who was known as much for his truancy as for his jump shot. There was little that the adviser thought he could do for the young man. If the Golden Bears’ player was not motivated to go to class, Mr. Smith felt, so be it.

But a men’s basketball coach saw things differently, Mr. Smith recalls. Wouldn’t the player’s attendance improve, the coach suggested, if Mr. Smith simply agreed to stop by his house each morning and cart him to class?

Mr. Smith told the coach, "You’re crazy. If this player wants to come to class, he can come to class."

Not long after the exchange, Mr. Smith says, he was told that his advising services were no longer needed in basketball. He continued to work with players in other sports, but he knew he had been sent a message.

Mr. Smith’s experience is not uncommon. In the world of big-time college sports, advisers are under severe pressure to do whatever coaches believe is necessary to keep students academically eligible for play. The written job description for an academic counselor to athletes may not mention duties like providing chauffeur services and making wake-up calls, but at some elite programs that is precisely the sort of thing these staff members are called upon to do.

Academic advisers may never have been under greater scrutiny. This week the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released the findings of an external investigation that found advisers complicit in a nearly two-decade-long scheme of academic fraud, in which athletes were steered toward no-show classes in order to maintain their eligibility. The case has reinvigorated a national conversation about whether academic advisers are too cozy with athletics programs and unduly influenced by coaches who are hellbent on winning. At several institutions, including North Carolina, those concerns have prompted officials to restructure athletics-advising offices, building firewalls between advisers and athletics staff members.

Current and former advisers acknowledge that they develop close personal relationships with players, and that advisers are forced to balance their desire to see athletes succeed academically with the knowledge that helping them too much can be counterproductive, if not flatly inappropriate. As Mr. Smith’s experience shows, advisers sometimes disagree with coaches about what is best for a student, and those clashes highlight the awkward space that advisers occupy on the line between academics and athletics.

Ensuring that athletes stay on track academically is a high-stakes endeavor. Under rules set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, colleges can be penalized if athletes fall short of minimum grade-point averages or fail to make adequate progress toward degrees.

The challenge of meeting those standards is all the more significant, some advisers say, because many recruits are not ready for the rigors of college-level work. At Chapel Hill, a former learning specialist has said that she worked with football and basketball players who read below a middle-school level.

Less attention has been paid to what is likely to be a more common problem: whether advisers hypermanage athletes, stunting their intellectual growth and preventing them from becoming self-sufficient. That is a question Mr. Smith often found himself asking. He recalls working with college seniors who could not even locate the main administrative building. They had never had to go there themselves.

"They grow to expect other people to do things for them," says Mr. Smith, who was a running back on Brown University’s football team and earned a Ph.D. at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He now works as an associate dean of students at Reed College, which does not participate in NCAA sports.

Leah Nash for The Chronicle

Bruce Smith’s years as an adviser made him ask if college athletes “grow to expect other people to do things for them.” He played football at Brown and is now an associate dean at Reed College.

During Mr. Smith’s career in athletics, which included three years as coordinator of academic support for football players at the University of Arizona, he grew increasingly concerned about how the demands of college sports undermined the academic goals of athletes, particularly black men like himself. Part of the problem, he surmises, is that the pressure to keep players academically eligible impedes their opportunities to grow and explore. Better to steer athletes toward less rigorous majors and obsessively manage their time, the thinking goes, than to risk a drop in grade-point average that could lead to NCAA penalties.

"It’s important that they fail and learn from their failures," he says. "Athletes and their coaches are in a position where they cannot fail."

Protecting athletes from failure can mean monitoring their every move. At 65 percent of Division I programs, athletes are followed to class every day to make sure they attend, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the NCAA.

Advisers often resist being asked to conduct class checks, arguing that it takes away time that they could otherwise spend with students. So athletics departments routinely outsource the job to paid undergraduates, who have become part of a vast enterprise of advisers, tutors, and learning specialists devoted to the academic welfare of athletes.

Last spring the University of Arizona paid Mackenzie C. Jaroch about $200 a month to be a class checker. Ms. Jaroch, who was a student at the time, says her job was to loiter in hallways outside of classrooms, holding a printout with the names and pictures of athletes on it. When the players showed up, she checked them off. By protocol, she would wait for 15 minutes after the class began to make sure the players did not duck out early.

"They all really did come to class, which honestly I was surprised by," she says.

The job always bothered Ms. Jaroch a bit. It seemed invasive to the athletes, she says, and the system relied on the honesty of class checkers. "I thought, ‘This is kind of weird. I’m following people across campus, and some people never knew.’ "

When students do not show up for class, it is often up to advisers like Brian Davis to track them down. He spent 16 years as head of academic services for football at the University of Texas at Austin. When he caught wind of a student’s skipping class, Mr. Davis would sometimes march across the campus to rap on the door of a dorm room.

If the situation called for it, Mr. Davis even employed subterfuge to track down class skippers. One of his favorite tricks was to borrow a player’s cellphone and use it to call up a truant, posing as the teammate "They’d go, ‘Yo, what’s up, dog.’ I’d say, ‘This is B.D. This is not dog.’ "

Mr. Davis accepted that chasing students around the campus came with the job, but his experience highlights the difference between advising high-profile football players and advising students in the general population. As he describes it, an athletics adviser in an elite football program is sort of like a surrogate heli­copter parent, embedded in the lives of players, some of whom show little interest in academics.

"There is a naïveté among those on campus who are not in athletics that if someone would just explain to these guys what to do, then they’d go do it," says Mr. Davis, who works as a consultant.

Sometimes even the best efforts of counselors fall short. Consider the three amigos, a nickname that Mr. Davis gave to a trio of players who were ruled academically ineligible for the Longhorns’ 2013 appearance in the Alamo Bowl.

"I don’t know a single thing we could have done differently to get these guys to own their own education, to own their own behavior, to understand that they had to do the minimum to pass enough classes to continue their eligibility," he says. "I was out of ammunition."

A counselor’s success often depends on whether a coach is willing to discipline an athlete for slacking in class. But persuading a coach to bench a star player can be a tough sell.

Joseph M. Scogin, senior associate athletic director and assistant provost at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, says coaches play a crucial role in motivating players academically.

"Everybody keeps talking about it all falling on academic support," he says. "I cannot overstate the importance of the coach in holding students accountable and setting a certain level of expectation in the classroom. It starts with the coaches."

If there is a trend in academic advising for athletics, it is to give coaches less official influence, not more. When scandals over academic fraud occur in college sports, the usual response is to revamp advising offices so that counselors report to an academic administrator rather than an athletics one. In 1999, after a high-profile cheating scandal, the University of Minnesota moved advising out of athletics and into the provost’s office. Other big-time programs, assessing their own vulnerabilities, have followed suit.

"It hit people that this isn’t something that happens at some underbelly of a school that nobody knows about," says Kimberly B. Durand, president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. "That shocked a lot of people."

More recently, in 2012, the University of North Carolina system required all 15 of its campuses with intercollegiate athletics programs to move advising under an academic administrator. The directive came in response to the revelations of academic fraud at Chapel Hill, where the head of advising previously reported to an athletics official as well as an associate dean. "It puts everybody on notice that this is an academic decision," says Carol L. Folt, chancellor at Chapel Hill.

In 1998 academic advisers at 69 percent of Division I institutions reported exclusively to athletics administrators, NCAA research shows. By 2009 that proportion had fallen to 33 percent.

To understand how—or if—these changes make a difference for advisers, take a look at Virginia Tech.

The university moved its athletics advising operations to the provost’s office in 1987, after the NCAA penalized Virginia Tech for multiple instances of academic fraud. The violations included a charge that tutors, at the urging of an assistant coach, had completed assignments for a men’s basketball player.

Amid the turmoil, Virginia Tech chose Jerry W. Via, a biology professor, as coordinator for academic advising for athletes.

Advising at Virginia Tech had been a largely neglected enterprise, says Mr. Via, who held that job for 11 years. There were few staff members, and to the extent that there were services, they were provided only to basketball and football players.

"I knew it was going to be a big cultural shift," says Mr. Via, who is now assistant dean of undergraduate instruction. "I started, and I had a desk and a chair and a pencil sharpener, and that was about it."

Now Virginia Tech has eight full-time advising-staff members and about 100 tutors serving 500 athletes. Officials say the signs of improvement are clear. Among the freshman class of basketball players who entered Virginia Tech in 2006-7, 90 percent graduated within six years, as measured by the NCAA’s graduation-success rate. For football players, the rate was 78 percent. In both sports, Virginia Tech exceeded the figures for Division I sports, in which the rate was 70 percent for both football and men’s basketball. The NCAA’s measure, unlike the federal graduation rate, does not penalize colleges for students who transfer before completing a degree, as long as they leave in good academic standing.

At Virginia Tech’s Quillen Family Academic Center for Student Athletes, students regularly meet with counselors, who help them balance class schedules with the demands of sports. But the players do not come just to talk shop. They want advice on where they should live or even how best to propose to their girlfriends.

Sarah E. Armstrong, an associate director of student-athlete academic-support services there, says she embraces the personal role she plays in the lives of athletes. On a recent rainy afternoon at the center, Ms. Armstrong eased back in her chair, wearing a pair of brown cowboy boots, her neck draped in beads and thin silver chains. She cut her sentences with deep belly laughs, describing the football players she counsels as if they were little brothers.

"We’ve been meeting with these students since some of them were sophomores in high school," she said. "They want meaningful conversation about more than just football."

But there is a limit to what Ms. Armstrong will do for students, she said. Athletics staff members may check in on whether the players go to class, but counselors do not. "I don’t have time for that," she said.

Since the scandals of the late 1980s, Virginia Tech has worked to place barriers between athletics and academic authority. Counselors like Ms. Armstrong can help players to organize their schedules, but only advisers within the university’s colleges have the authority to add and drop classes.

"Athletics just does not make decisions about academics," says Karen Eley Sanders, associate vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs and director of student success. "Maybe it did before I arrived, but it absolutely does not now."

Virginia Tech’s athletics advising program, however, is arguably less independent than it once was. Two years ago, citing budgetary constraints, the university turned again to the athletics department to cover the advising center’s $750,000 annual budget. The provost’s office still covers the director’s salary, though.

On average, athletics departments at Division I programs cover 65 percent of the total budget of advising programs, the NCAA’s 2009 survey found. To skeptics, this fact renders moot all the talk of firewalls between athletics and academics.

"The reporting lines really don’t mean much," says Gerald S. Gurney, president of the Drake Group, which promotes academic integrity in college sports. "The pressures come from the money. If the budget is being derived out of the athletic department, then they want control, and they will control it in some way—whether it’s official or not."

Mr. Davis, the former Texas adviser, agreed that athletics departments do not easily surrender their influence. About 15 years ago, he says, he approached the provost about bringing advising under the umbrella of academics.

"He just kind of laughed," Mr. Davis recalls, "and said, ‘Those guys will hang you from the tower if you try to do that. They don’t want to give up that authority.’

"So I dropped it."

Academic Advising of Athletes: By the Numbers

65 percent

Proportion of colleges that conduct daily class checks on athletes


Median budget of academic support for athletes at the wealthiest institutions

65 percent

Average share of academic-support budgets covered by athletic departments

26 percent

Proportion of athletics tutorial budgets spent on football, more than on any other sport

51 percent

Proportion of advisers who say too many athletes choose a major because it will be easy

62 percent

Proportion of advisers who say too many athletes are restricted in their choice of classes by the time demands of their sports

Source: NCAA survey of academic-support services at Division I institutions, 2009.