College athletes are some of the most admired students in the country. Their accomplishments on the field are made all the more impressive by the perception that these individuals also excel in the classroom and contribute to their college communities. Yet, a couple of news items from the past week suggest that many of these athletes may not be deserving of the many accolades they receive. Indeed, the role of college sports itself must be called into question when it is revealed that some star players can barely read and others are so blindly conceited that they find it appropriate to form a “workers union” of college football bros.
These revelations did unfortunately occur, with a CNN study discovering that 60 percent of UNC-Chapel Hill football or basketball players read between the fourth and eighth-grade levels, while between eight and ten percent could read only at a third-grade level. For perspective, it is important to remember that UNC-Chapel Hill is widely regarded as one of the top academic institutions in the country and also has a wildly successful basketball history. The contradiction between the school’s reputation and athlete’s academic credentials is obvious, and seems to suggest that some at Chapel Hill were willing to sacrifice the school’s educational capacity in order to bolster its media image and boost ticket sales.
That said, it has been a widely accepted practice to consider athletic potential a hugely influential factor in college admissions, and few would be surprised to hear that many athletes at major universities don’t perform as well as their peers in the classroom. Hours of practices, long road trips, and generally intense pressure to perform create stresses for college athletes that other students simply do not face. Any serious college competitor has been confronted with these challenges for years, and it makes sense that many of their grades would suffer in the long run.
However, it is a major issue when nearly 70 percent of athletes in top athletic programs would struggle through a ninth-grade English class. Such a situation suggests that our institutions are failing both the athletes in question and the many peers and younger children who look up to them.
Students should not be admitted to programs in which their academic background will not allow them to contribute to class or at least attempt the coursework. Additional help for struggling students is clearly an important part of any solution, but standards shouldn’t be lowered so wildly as to reduce the value of all other student’s degrees. Sadly, the UNC example further elucidates an utter failure to meet this need, as administrators and faculty at that institution deliberately colluded with student-athletes to get them off the hook for college coursework.
Indeed, the Chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill conceded this week that a number of student-athletes were admitted in spite of academic credentials that blatantly did not meet the school’s requirements, and went on to receive credit for classes that were never actually taught. A large number of student-athletes received grades for semester-long courses in which the only assignment was to turn in a single paper. The corruption seems to have extended to all levels of the college community, as one faculty member is now facing charges of fraud for receiving payment for “teaching” one of these fake courses.
Although fielding successful teams is perhaps the most effective advertising strategy any large university can employ, the UNC example shows that those running our nation’s finest institutions may be looking at their mission with too wide of a lens. Certainly, ticket sales and alumni donations are good things for any establishment. However, when the education of student-athletes – and by extension their peers – is suffering for financial gain, our academic institutions are failing in their most basic mission.
Like me, a number of student-athletes have taken the New Year as an opportunity to express their grievances with college administrations. According to CBS Sports, a group of Northwestern football players, along with various other college athletes from around the country, have announced their intention to form a union that can represent their interests and give them a “seat at the table”.
While many of this group’s stated goals are admirable, including minimizing the risk of brain injury for college athletes, the general spirit of such a movement must be called into question. Unsurprisingly, one of the group’s aims is to eliminate restrictions on “player’s ability to benefit from commercial opportunities.” The NCAA has long barred college athletes from receiving direct financial compensation related to their athletics, and the athletes forming this group seem to believe that such an arrangement is a violation of their rights.
Such an attitude is hugely entitled and suggests that college athletes are not appreciative of the many privileges they gain through their participation in athletics. NCAA was right to harshly rebut the demands of the group, as student-athletes are not employees with collective bargaining rights, but rather students who are voluntarily participating in an extra-curricular pursuit.
Yet one can hardly blame these players for assuming such a distorted position. The revelations regarding UNC-Chapel Hill show that college athletes are often treated as employees, where their role as a student is pushed aside to further their role as a walking advertisement for the university. Simply put, college athletes wouldn’t make such ridiculous demands if their self-image were less skewed by special treatment.
Top-rate institutions like UNC and Northwestern should take these recent events as opportunities for reflection and should actively seek to reintegrate student-athletes into their respective school communities. Athletes can be wonderful role models and very successful academics, but institutions must do more to foster the development of the whole individual rather than simply exploiting athletic talent for monetary gain.