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.
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  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.
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.
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.
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 www.tothepointanalyses.com.