Academics at an Athletic Institution

Traditionally, colleges and universities have been defined as institutions of higher learning, where young adults (or older individuals) go to advance their knowledge and understanding. Certainly, college has also always been about social development in addition to intellectual pursuits, and college students must navigate through some of the most exciting and challenging times of their lives. Part of the activities at most college campuses entail some form of sports, be they club sports or more high tier team based events. University sports teams tend to instill their student fans with pride and create healthy rivalries with other institutions. As these teams and their fan bases have grown, however, they have begun to occupy an unreasonably large portion of the public conciousness when it comes to certain universities. College sports associations such as the NCAA have become wildly popular, and as a result athletes on NCAA teams at major athletic schools may receive special treatment from the university that is not afforded to their other students, making it unclear as to what extent these athletes are truly “students” and demonstrating the capacity of colleges to compromise the values they were founded upon in order to curry fame and public favor. upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_thumb_2_29_harvard_crimsons_v_brown_2009.jpg_800px-harvard_crimsons_v_brown_2009.jpg

The Life of a Student Athlete

I do not mean to generalize here, as the athletic environment at any major university is no doubt quite unique and has its own subtleties. Likewise, many student athletes truly embody the values of both students and athletes who are able to effectively obtain a college education while representing their university in sporting events. Many more such athletes, however, seem to be shirking their academic obligations in favor of athletic ones. Athletes may spend 50-60 hours each week practicing their respective sport, even though they are also supposed to be obtaining a college education which takes similarly extensive amounts of weekly effort. As a result, athletes will often end up cutting corners on their educations either by choice or by necessity. unfortunately, rather than confront this problem, many universities seems to enable these behaviors.

A recently developing scandal at the University of North Carolina has revealed that student football players seemed to have received undeserved grades for their coursework. In one example, a student turned in a final essay for a class on race relations that consisted of a single poorly written paragraph bout Rosa Parks, which was itself partially plagiarized from a book. For this work, the student received an A- in the class, even though no such grade was reasonable. No normal student would have been able to pass a course upon handing in such a paper, and the University's willingness to pass such a student makes it clear that their priorities are first and foremost athletic in nature. The reason for this is simple - the NCAA requires students to meet certain academic criteria in order to qualify to play their sporting games. As a result, students need good grades. Since NCAA college sports bring lots of money in to colleges, the colleges are motivated to ensure that their athletes are able to play their sports, thus benefitting the University on a financial level and boosting their public visibility.

These corrupt motivations that compromise educational integrity are not confined to single examples, or even single universities. Student athletes are often only attending college to play their sport in hopes of advancing to the professional level in the future, and as a result they often have little invested in their own educations. Many universities have the capacity for students to create their own academic majors as a part of their studies. These programs were likely put in place to ensure that all students would be able to follow their academic passions without restriction. Unfortunately, they are being abused by student athletes and their advisors to ensure qualification for NCAA events. Students will often create “customized” majors that are poorly defined, and tend to involve taking notoriously easy courses with little or no outside work, such as introductory psychology or women's studies classes. So long as academic advisors approve of the majors, then the students are free to pursue them with limited restriction, and given the bias of universities towards athlete success it is no surprise that such majors end up being de facto approved in many cases.

Again, many student athletes are invested in their educations and no doubt pursue a rigorous academic and athletic schedule that challenges them to their personal limits. Many more, however, particularly at top tier athletic schools, seem to be motivated more by athletic success than by educational success. This is fine at the personal level as everyone is entitled to have their own beliefs and priorities, however at the institutional level it is a problem. Colleges that compromise their educational academic basis to further the profit driven agendas introduced by athletic popularity are undermining their own integrity. If a university will give a student athlete a degree for plagiarizing out of date essays on the current political state in Zaire, then a future employer is far less likely to take a degree of another student from that university seriously even if that student did truly earn the degree. In the long run, this will hurt the credibility of the university, and will only serve to damage the state of academic rigor in the USA.

Personal Experience

When I went to college, I attended the University of Connecticut, which is a top tier athletic school, particularly for the sport of basketball. In addition, football is a major part of campus life and most students are strong proponents of the school's athletic endeavors. During my time in college, I attended my share of sporting events, however over time I became disgusted with how the university was prioritizing athletics over my own education. Whether they were doing so intentionally is difficult to say per se, but they nonetheless gave the constant and definite appearance that sports were a more important aspect of the university than was the academic rigor of the institution.

I was not privy to any potentially institutionalized simplification of student athletes' educations as a student there, beyond simple observations. Football players in my classes would often appear for only one or two classes during the entire semester and would clearly not be learning the material effectively, however I do not know whether or not they pass these classes and as such it is difficult to say if the university is instilling biases even at that level. I do, however, know that student athletes receive free tutoring every week in order to “improve” their educations. Tutors for student athletes are told that they should not just give the answers to the athletes, as this would defeat the entire point of education and would prevent any learning from taking place. In the end, however, many tutors are pressured by the athletes or even by their advisors to divulge answers, making it clear that education comes secondary for many of these athletes.

In daily life at the University level, sports were always put first, and athletes were given advantages that were wholly unnecessary. For example, when it came time to select dorm rooms for the next academic year, first selection was meant to go to students in the so called “honors” program that was intended to recognize students that had achieved at the highest levels that the university could offer. Before these Honors students could choose their dorms, however, football and basketball players were able to make their choices as the university valued their time more than that of their academic elite. Even at graduation, a time that is meant to celebrate the academic and personal growth of students over the course of their college careers, athletics still came before academics. Rather than having top students lead in the processions of graduating students, these processionals were headed by the most popular student athletes that were graduating as this was sure to be more popular for most people there.

Admittedly, I don't feel that I was personally damaged by the prioritization of athletics over academics at the school. I never had a dorm room or course seat stolen from me by a student athlete, and the affect on my college experience was nominal. That being said, I still do not agree with the University's tacit admission that they place a higher value on athletic success than academic success. I understand how their motives have become twisted by the popularity of student sports and the money and notability they bring to the school. Indeed, in many ways my degree may benefit from the increased name recognition brought on by the success of the UConn basketball teams in the NCAA tournaments. Even so, I feel that colleges need to refocus their priorities in an education first manner rather than continuing to allow student athletes to coast through the college process and receive a degree that theoretically should hold the same weight as my own. Athletics are hard, and college itself is quite challenging, but this is no excuse t compromise the college experience in order to advance a purely athletic agenda. This is a fine approach on a professional sports training organization, but not an an institution of higher learning. Priorities need to be adjusted in order to clarify which aspects of learning are truly supported by high tier athletic schools.

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