The Corruption of College Athletics

The U.S. likes to view itself as the epitome of sports integrity, but beyond its own professional and amateur doping scandals, there is the institutionalized corruption around U.S. college athletics, reports Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

There is an old saying when it comes to college sports: “they are played not quite for fun, and not quite for money.” Of course, that sentiment is supposed to apply to the players. It certainly does not apply to the college administrations and athletic departments which nurture these sports.

University of North Carolina’s sports logo

For the schools with “big name” teams, college sports is all about the money. In the U.S., “the 231 NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] Division 1 schools that make income data available generated a total of $9.15 billion in revenue during the 2015 fiscal year.” At least 25 U.S. schools make almost or more than $100 million a year. We are talking about money generated directly or indirectly by the teams themselves, and we all know about the corruptive power of that sort of cash.

So how would that corruption work? We are not talking about gambling schemes and fixing games here. But, as it turns out, we are talking about fixing the “eligibility” to play of “student” athletes. According to the academic eligibility rules used by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, student athletes must maintain between 90 and 100 percent of the minimum GPA (Grade Point Average) required for graduation at the school they attend.

Freshman athletes need 90 percent to be eligible to play their sport, sophomores need 95 percent, and then it is 100 percent for juniors and seniors. OK, that is a bit of a break already, at least for the freshmen and sophomores. And maintaining a minimum GPA should not be that hard. However, with all the money at stake for the institution, most of these schools do not want to take any chances about high-performing athletes staying eligible.

The result of this pressure was laid bare by a New York Times article of Oct. 14. It appeared in the Sports Saturday section and was entitled “N.C.A.A. Declines to Punish North Carolina for Academic Fraud.” It seems that for nearly the last 20 years the administrators of the highly regarded University of North Carolina were “running one of the worst academic fraud schemes in college sports history, involving [200] fake classes that enabled dozens of athletes to gain and maintain their eligibility.”

However, the university was not penalized by the N.C.A.A. because the organization has no rules against fraudulent classes as long as they are not open only to athletes. In this case, although really designed with student athletes in mind, the “paper” classes were technically open to everyone. “Similar misconduct has been alleged at Auburn [in Georgia] and Michigan.”

No one at North Carolina has lost their job, and no student academic records have been reviewed. The embarrassment of it all did move the administration to “correct” these “academic irregularities.” Yet the school representatives will still argue with you about the term “fraudulent.”

Mark Merritt, the university’s general counsel, says that “the fact that the courses did not meet our expectations doesn’t make them fraudulent.”

But, of course, he is dissembling. These pseudo-courses did meet expectations: keeping the money coming in by keeping athletes unable or unwilling to also be students on the field.

The Fans

How is it that college athletic teams are so popular that they can generate this level of wealth? The answer involves our instinctive need to identify with, and cheerlead for, a group we have made our own. The intensity of this proclivity varies with individuals, but generally we all feel the need to some extent. And, when we really get into the role of cheerleader, that which we identify with becomes an extension of ourselves. Its fate becomes our fate.

Logo of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is responsible for regulating college sports.

The number of candidates for your enthusiasm is very large. They can be religious, political or cultural organizations. They can range from a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post to the community glee club. Or it can be that fondly remembered college you graduated from, now symbolized by its sports teams.

It must be pointed out that such wholehearted identification isn’t entirely misguided. For instance, devoted followers of sports teams do get something, besides overpriced tickets and team paraphernalia, for their money.

Daniel Wann, a psychology professor who has made a career researching the mind-set of sports spectators, tells us that there is a correlation between identifying with a sports team and a sense of psychological well-being: “Higher identification with a team is associated with significantly lower levels of alienation [and] loneliness, and higher levels of collective self-esteem.”

Colleges with popular sports teams have simply learned how to turn the satisfaction of this psychological need into a $9 billion-a-year niche industry.

Sports Teams and the Nature of Education

Unfortunately, there is a downside. When it comes to the enthusiasm around college sports, the notion of education gets lost. Thus, it seems not to have occurred to most college sports fans that whatever satisfaction they might derive from supporting their teams, they are simultaneously helping to undermine the education of the players.

The University of North Carolina’s visitor center.

This situation is, in good part, a consequence of the fact that the very definition of a college education and, indeed its ultimate value, has been long under question. It used to be that relatively few went to college and those who did went for a “liberal education.”

For the first two years of what then was a four-year degree program, one took a mandatory sampling of courses in the arts, sciences, social sciences and humanities. Having a taste of the breadth of knowledge out there, the student then spent the last two years specializing, or “majoring,” in their chosen field: history, English, anthropology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, economics, aspects of art, music, etc.

This traditional, non-vocational, approach to education ran into trouble in the 1960s, an unsettled time when a lot of revered traditions were being questioned. At that time the complaint arose from students, parents, and that anomalous category known as employers, that colleges were not teaching anything “useful.”

In other words they were not adequately preparing students for the job market. As a result, increasing numbers of colleges, urged on by state governments, did away with the liberal arts approach to education. As they did so, education itself, at least as traditionally understood as a broad introduction to a world of knowledge, ceased to be the goal.

In the resulting new vocationally oriented environment in which career preparation took center stage, traditional standards of educational judgment deteriorated. For instance, grade inflation became rampant, reflecting an administrative notion that the student is really a consumer who needs to be satisfied with the “product” the college is peddling. As time went on, a process of confirmation bias occurred as both administrators and faculty who had bought into this new “business model” of education, replicated themselves in new hires.

That is the background against which the University of North Carolina could devise and then run, for nearly 20 years, “one of the worst academic fraud schemes in college sports history.” You see, most of the athletes in those fraudulent courses were in school for the vocational purpose of moving into professional sports careers. For them, the playing field was (and still is) the only classroom that mattered. And the pseudo-courses? They were, shall we say, a form of grade inflation. The fans, when they noticed at all, seemed to take the irregularities in stride.

Thus, within the context of the modern commercial culture of the United States, the vocational nature of college sports is really “normal.” These sports also make barrels of money for the sponsoring institution and give a lot of people something to cheer about. Isn’t all of that worth 20 years of fraud?

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism. He blogs at


32 comments for “The Corruption of College Athletics

  1. Superman
    December 14, 2017 at 04:35

    You lost me at the get go ‘The Corruption of College Athletics’. To quote Ned Beatty in the 1976 classic movie Network “The World is a Business” and college is no different. I mean look all that money and at those tuition payments. I kid you not the math simply does not match up. I can only imagine who has his hands in those pockets it reminds me of Shawkshank Redemption I kid you not. I smell a rat!

  2. P. Michael Garber
    December 12, 2017 at 22:56

    The answer involves our instinctive need to identify with, and cheerlead for, a group we have made our own. The intensity of this proclivity varies with individuals, but generally we all feel the need to some extent. And, when we really get into the role of cheerleader, that which we identify with becomes an extension of ourselves. Its fate becomes our fate . . .

    there is a correlation between identifying with a sports team and a sense of psychological well-being: “Higher identification with a team is associated with significantly lower levels of alienation [and] loneliness, and higher levels of collective self-esteem.”

    As a lifelong political junkie who is only recently a sports fan, what interested me most about this article was these statements and how they relate to politics in America, and specifically the last election and its aftermath. Many people relate to politicians and political parties in a similar way as Solomon describes here for sports teams, including many people in my “liberal” milieu, Hillary supporters who all collectively lost their minds during the election and haven’t yet recovered. Once someone “identifies” with a politician, it seems, they have made them a “friend”, which transition utterly decimates any capacity they ever had to judge that person or any information about them in an objective manner (and this transition, IMO, is greatly facilitated by television, bringing us closer to these people, bringing them right into our living room). This phenomenon strikes me as closely analogous to becoming a fan of a team, providing the same benefits in self-esteem and belonging, and hopefully explaining my utter failure to get any of my presumably well educated liberal friends to acknowledge that Russiagate is a witchhunt.

  3. rosemerry
    December 12, 2017 at 18:30

    Other aspects of the corruption of “higher education” in the USA include the massive payments to administrative staff at “CEO” level, and the tiny, irregular, unreliable pittance paid to large numbers of post-graduates teaching when they can find a job at all.

  4. peon d. rich
    December 11, 2017 at 16:52

    Perhaps student athletes are carrying on the joy of playing their sports, attending to the last 4 – 5 years of non-alienating work (even for those who come to ‘love’ their jobs/are pleased with the compensation/are ‘fascinated’ by the prospects of their field of employment). Liberal Arts for everyone, anytime, for free. Let the athletes play, give them the support they need for however long it takes, make it a farm system that looks out for the long-term well-being of the athletes. They do generate a kind of partisan enthusiasm that, as stated, contribute to esteem and self-worth. To keep partisanship away from political economy and cultural values requires that we sever the link between base psychological affects and political, economic, and cultural structures – it’s o.k. to root for a team rabidly and irrationally for a moment of catharsis, to subsequently return to the world as ordered by higher senses of self absent dominations of selves.

    • Skip Edwards
      December 12, 2017 at 14:07

      It is especially important in this article to read all of the comments. Most are very worthy ones.

  5. December 11, 2017 at 12:46

    Curious about the effect top tier athletic programs have on the salaries of full professors and administrators. The argument for high salaries for college presidents is if Nick Saban can make millions, why not me. The faculties make the same argument, why not me. Colleges have been notorious for increasing costs beyond the cost of living, and have coerced donors and legislators to go along.

    As to athletes, many aspire but few make it as professionals outside their universities The NCAA tells them that. Although jocks retain their aspirations until no sport employer comes calling after and even before graduation, .they can and often do take advantage of their special status and get something out of college. Even those who skate through enjoy the benefit of having been exposed to bright people and possibilities as well as the connections they make which will serve them the rest of their lives .I confess to being one of them and still would have preferred, above all else, to be the third baseman for the Cleveland Indians.

    As to higher education, not entirely, but possibly mainly, the deficiencies that exist in higher education can’t blamed on jocks.

  6. Fran Macadam
    December 11, 2017 at 03:42

    The sheepskin psychosis.

  7. A.Smith
    December 10, 2017 at 21:06

    Clemson is (currently) a university that emphasizes the development of the student athlete in a manner that is opposite of this articles depiction. Take a look at this recent vlog

  8. December 10, 2017 at 19:04

    “That’s my own view in a nutshell. Broken arms and legs are one thing, but brain damage is quite another.”

    you mean like brain damage from -say- drinking alcohol ? ? ?
    unacceptable ! ! ! ninny-nanny-ing must be done for their own good ! ! !
    oops, better to attack football with a small cohort to protest, than attack drinking, with 90% of the student body to ride you out of town on a rail… alcohol will be involved…
    hee hee hee
    ho ho ho
    ha ha ha
    ak ak ak

    • Zachary Smith
      December 12, 2017 at 13:12

      This column by Mr. Davidson was about sports, not drinking. It didn’t occur to me to remark about brain damage, deaths from drunk driving, or liver disease from the overuse of alcohol.

    • Skip Scott
      December 13, 2017 at 18:36

      Hey art-

      Maybe the sane response would be to make football and boxing like drinking alcohol. You must be an adult (over 21) to decide that you’d rather risk certain brain damage and play football or box than refrain from those activities.

  9. fudmier
    December 10, 2017 at 16:19

    On my qualifiers(1970) I wrote in as unfavorable terms as I could, a summary of what I called “administrative education”..
    Fortunately, my income has been independent of my degrees. My lifelong interest has been placing discoveries in anatomy, cellular biology, genetics and physiology in instructional design focused to establish learning. Predict and relate behaviors, retentive capacities, and learning styles sufficiently to individualize interactive machine delivered instruction! Different strokes for different folks. A few medical schools were interested, but no one in education has ever shown any interest; however the military and the movie industries are keenly interested in instructional design; they call it fake news.
    I coined in 1969 “Education is a bureaucracy, learning is a biological process”. No one in any school of education i contacted was interested either in the serious literature about learning (most of it came from Europe) nor were they interested in relating the biological machinery to the sensory enabled processes of learning. After all a persons knowledge is a direct result of his access to experienceso if you want dumbed down graduates don’t allow them to experience anything. If the student never sees a rocket and has no access to those people who design and build rockets, the student will generally not become interested to build rockets. It takes years to the lay the background and mind set that develop life long interest and devote that interest to endeavor. Malcolm Knowles was Aristotle no questions need be asked, just memorize the styles, pass the stupid test, and shut the xxxx up, if you want a job when you graduate.
    Then the focus was on the use of technology to design and deliver propaganda; the military and governments were highly interested in these fields. Person side emotion vs instructor side Psychology invokes emotion to teach individuals.
    This is a technology in propaganda that began in earnest in 1896 in Switzerland.
    Text books were designed to exploit student susceptibility to hidden emotion-driven target directed psycho induced arousal.
    The US department of education went live the day I left school.
    Thinking through the article brought back deeply hidden bad memories. But hidden between the lines of the article are the pointers that explanation how educational methodology taught today’s kids not to defend their own democracies, not to worry about the millions being killed so a few can have the spoils of fracking, oil and gas (FOG). It came from the literature my third grade teacher taught; the book was a product produced by a collection of highly trained grant focused Phds, no one thought the object of the grant was to deny people their freedom.

  10. December 10, 2017 at 15:18

    , “when we really get into the role of cheerleader, that which we identify with becomes an extension of ourselves. Its fate becomes our fate.”…very true, and the regimentation that is the basis for “groupthink” begins in grammar school, i.e. the pledge of allegiance is given a greater importance than any civics education. Sports are important, but not when they are competitive to the extent that sportsmanship becomes secondary and ‘My team right or wrong becomes the mantra”. The “cheerleading” of college teams reflects the cheerleading of mindless wars, the “us against them” mentality.

    “In the resulting new vocationally oriented environment in which career preparation took center stage, traditional standards of educational judgment deteriorated”… yes, indeed…and what was left of “social science courses often became platforms of indoctrination as more professors became blacklisted for holding radical views. The infusion of private money comes with a price.

    • Skip Edwards
      December 12, 2017 at 14:00

      Read Jane Mayer’s book, “Dark Money.”

  11. December 10, 2017 at 12:04

    The University if Chicago pulled out of big time FB many years ago thanks to the foresight of its President at the time. He saw the seeds of corruption and recognized the hypocrisy of mixing education with the likes of the business.

    • Alma
      December 13, 2017 at 05:02

      Too bad Hutchins didn’t have the foresight to shut down the business school. Latin America might be a more prosperous place now had he done so.

  12. December 10, 2017 at 11:59

    You left out one big issue with college sports such as football. Repeated head injuries, as well as other lifelong disabilities due to injury. When added to the fraudulent courses issue, the entire thing looks like it is all downside for the players, and all upside for the money makers. Post traumatic encephalopathy (or chronic traumatic encephalopathy) refers to permanent damage to the central nervous system that becomes more severe over time. There is no way to prevent this from happening in sports such as football or boxing. Accepting these “sports” as normal activity is to accept permanent brain damage to young people as normal. There are a couple million cases of head injury in the US every year, and many of those injuries are due to sports and other recreational activities (such as riding a motorcycle without a helmet). It is time to rethink high school and college sports.

    • Skip Scott
      December 10, 2017 at 12:22

      Hi John-

      I have mentioned the same thing in previous comment streams. It is ridiculous that an institute of learning would allow any activity that causes brain damage as an inherent part of the game. I can’t imagine any parent who cares about their child’s well-being to knowingly allow them to participate in such an activity. It is time to rethink these sports. I’m not for eliminating sports where it is possible to get a brain injury as the result of an accident (we can’t live our lives or raise our kids in a bubble) but with football and boxing it is virtually impossible to avoid some permanent brain damage. It is just a matter of degree.

      • December 10, 2017 at 17:52

        Hi Scott,

        It has been known since the 1800s as Dementia Pugilistica ( The owners, business managers and coaches all know this. The players are expendable; just more human resources for the owners. I wish the fans would catch on and realize they are aiding and abetting permanent brain damage in a significant proportion of the players they are supposedly rooting for. A significant number of players, including one great guy I knew (Tom McHale of the Miami Dolphins) end up with such intense depression that they commit suicide at a very early age. Football and boxing are obvious examples of money corrupting human activities and causing great harm.

    • Zachary Smith
      December 10, 2017 at 13:17

      There is no way to prevent this from happening in sports such as football or boxing. Accepting these “sports” as normal activity is to accept permanent brain damage to young people as normal.

      That’s my own view in a nutshell. Broken arms and legs are one thing, but brain damage is quite another. As I’ve often said, if the Superbowl was “across the street and free”, I’d not go. Ditto for any boxing match. I can’t do anything to stop these cruel “sports”, but I sure don’t have to do anything whatever to legitimize them either. Not even by my presence!

    • Skip Edwards
      December 12, 2017 at 13:57

      As to the first part of your comment, money, it is the same as an employer who pays low wages to workers and and reaps huge profits from their labors, all with only slight concern for worker safety; and, that is only until such worker leaves the job (usually with yet undiscovered injury).

    • John
      December 12, 2017 at 14:43

      I totally agree. If a sport wants a development program, then create it and not lay it on the tax payers. But, that would be bad currency policy(capitalism, etc). And yes, education should be just about education, learning, achieving skill, and mental development and not sport and profit.

  13. December 10, 2017 at 07:55

    There may very well be an Auburn, Georgia; but Auburn University is located in -surprise- Auburn, Alabama. Kinda close to Georgia, so, I guess a non-sports-loving poindexter ‘researching’ an article might slip right past that factoid.
    Seriously, I do not disagree with the premise of the article, but also realize how important sports are (and SHOULD BE) to us all in general. That it has become corrupted by big money does not obviate the value of sports in general. Need to get back to having EVERYONE participate in sports of ALL kinds, not just the ‘major’ ones.
    Fact is, through ESPN, etc, we have INFINITELY more/better coverage of ‘sports’ in general then we do of politics. THAT says something about the control of Empire over the media: non-essential activities can be (generally) honestly and openly reported on; the eee-vil that Empire does disappears down the memory hole that day.
    Besides, can’t abide much of pro sports these days which has simply turned into some sort of weird, long-running, jaw-flapping, bragging soap opera with occasional sports competitions on the side. That leaves the lesser evil of college/’amateur’ sports.

    • John
      December 12, 2017 at 14:40

      Sports were and are designed as a distraction for the masses. A bread and circus. Most get so involved that the sport/s of choice becomes their lives. That is one part why they were created. All of them. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, never existed until invented. The elites needed their bread and circuses.

  14. Tom Welsh
    December 10, 2017 at 07:02

    This has been going on for a very long time. When I was a young man – back in the 1960s – I heard an amusing anecdote about US college sports.

    It seems that this college had its heart set on admitting a certain young footballer who was amazingly fast, dexterous and tough. Unfortunately he was not very clever at all.

    So they devised a special test that even he could pass.

    They said, “The entrance examination consists of one paper: English Language. The paper consists of one question. The question is: how do you spell the word ‘coffee’? And, in order not to set the bar too high, the requirement for admission shall be to get one letter correct”.

    He spelled it: K – A – W – P – H- Y.

    And they let him in anyway, because he had made a determined effort.

    • John
      December 12, 2017 at 14:37

      That is hilarious Tom Walsh. Thanks for sharing.

  15. mike k
    December 9, 2017 at 21:53

    You cannot name a single institution or major dimension of American culture that is not deeply corrupt. Government, Education, the Medical industrial complex, Justice system, education, religion, military, economic, sports, entertainment……the list goes on and on. We do not suffer from isolated dysfunctions, our problems are generic, and go to the depth of what it means to be a human being.

    • WC
      December 10, 2017 at 10:50

      mike k.. Exactly! And the majority of the blame goes to the “Me Generation”, and the cure will require a hell of a lot more than wishful thinking and la la land idealism.

    • December 10, 2017 at 19:42

      couldn’t agree more.

    • Kiza
      December 11, 2017 at 08:32

      Very well said mike k. In US and its vassal countries everything is open to prostitutution and throwing of stones from the glass-castles. This is why the IOC ban of Russia from its Winter Olympics in South Korea and the stripping of medals from the previous Winter Olympics was not a surprise at all. For a good summary please read this:

      Paraphrasing Madeleine Albright: ”What is the point of this superb IOC if you cannot use it?”

      As you say – corruption everywhere for a few shekels and it is the most corrupt ones who are setting the rules and judging others.

    • Skip Edwards
      December 12, 2017 at 13:49

      As children we were taught, and still teach, “to not cheat lie or steal and to not physically solve our arguments by fighting but solve them by talking.” Then we became adults!

    • John
      December 12, 2017 at 14:35

      Well said and I completely concur. As long as we have a currency based planet, there will always be corruption. Not saying there would never be, just not as rampant. I do believe that organized competitive sports should be banned from colleges. If a professional sport wants a minor league system, then develop one. But, that would cut profits and here we go back into the former mentioned catalyst. Plus, look at all the injuries that occur which is a boon for the Medical industry that ultimately hits the tax payers. On and on it goes.

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