Investigation of UNC highlights tensions over role of student-athletes

An report released Wednesday details the extent of the so-called shadow curriculum at the University of North Carolina that let student-athletes take fake classes to boost their grades. 

Chris Keane/Reuters/File
A North Carolina Tar Heels cheerleader cheers for her team against the Vermont Catamounts during their men's NCAA basketball game in Greensboro, North Carolina, March 16, 2012. More than 3,000 students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received credit for fake classes over an 18-year period as part of a program that allowed many of them to remain eligible to play sports, according to a report released on October 22, 2014.

A report released Wednesday that sheds new light on the fake classes used to bolster student-athletes' grade-point averages at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill provides a window on the steps sometimes taken to give athletes an easy path through school. 

The investigation – one of several undertaken – indicates that from 1993 to 2011, individuals in the university's department of African and Afro-American studies let students take classes that never actually met and essentially had no requirements. All told, more than 3,100 students, many of whom participated in athletics, benefited from the so-called shadow curriculum, which let them stay academically eligible to compete in sports. 

The evidence fits into a narrative with which Americans are already familiar: Some student-athletes at large universities have their lives rigidly planned for them the moment they set foot on campus; their athletic pursuits leave little to no time for classes; and in some instances, the universities fill in the gaps by steering them toward easy classes and majors – or, in the case of UNC, toward no classes at all. 

This phenomenon involving student-athletes has played out time and again.

The Ann Arbor News reported in 2008 that a psychology professor at the University of Michigan taught 251 athletes in independent studies for subjects not ordinarily offered at the university. In these courses, which students were steered to by athletic department academic counselors, students rarely met with the professor. Subject matter included learning time management and study skills, the report found. 

USA Today reported in 2008 that students at Kansas State University were pushed toward easier majors with the sole intention of having them fulfill the National Collegiate Athletic Association's academic requirements for athletes. But little thought seemed to be given to preparing athletes for careers beyond sports or to letting them pursue academic careers that may have mattered to them. 

Former Kansas State University defensive lineman Steven Cline, for example, told USA Today that he majored in social sciences, a nondemanding major, along with 34 percent of the football team's juniors and seniors. Though that major may have kept his grades up, it didn't put him on a path to achieving his dream job of being a veterinarian. 

"I realize I just wasted all my efforts in high school and college to get a social science degree," he told the paper at the time. 

And a 2011 article in The Stanford Daily, Stanford University's student newspaper, talked about a list of acknowledged easy courses such as "Beginning Improvising" and "Social Dances of North America III" – a list given only to Stanford athletes as they chose classes. One student-athlete described the classes as "chock-full of athletes and very easy A's." 

Critics of university athletics offer potential solutions that run the gamut. Gary Gutting, a Notre Dame philosophy professor, wrote in The New York Times in 2012 that the term "student-athletes" is inaccurate for describing those who are often "athletes" first and "students" second. Lowering academic standards for athletes, he notes, undervalues the intellectual purposes for which universities are founded.

Referring to athletes as students first "is a falsehood institutionalized for the benefit of a profit-making system, and educational institutions should have no part in it," he writes. As an alternative, he suggests universities admit all students based on the same academic criteria, with gifted athletes given the same kind of preference given to students gifted in other extracurricular activities. 

Other critics take the opposite approach. David Pargman, a professor emeritus of educational psychology at Florida State University, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012 that universities should "end the charade" and "let athletes major in sports." Because Division I student-athletes view athletics as their main reason for attending college and because universities encourage these ambitions, he says, it would be best to let students officially place athletics at the center of their college careers – much the way students who study music or art are allowed to do. 

"These athletes are as honest in recognizing and divulging their aspiration as is the student who declares a goal of performing some day at the Metropolitan Opera or on the Broadway stage," he writes. "Student athletes wish to be professional entertainers. This is their heart's desire." 

Then there are the cries for student-athletes to be paid. The NCAA has appealed a federal judge's ruling stating that rules barring student-athletes from receiving certain profits violate antitrust laws. And at Northwestern University in April, football players voted on whether to form a union. The outcome of that move is now locked in the filing of briefs on the matter.

As former UNC basketball player Rashad McCants told ESPN, "You're not there to get an education. You're there to make revenue for the college." 

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