Chapter 4 Athletics and Academics You know what those idiots in Admissions have done? They have refused to admit two of the best basketball players in the country!
— Don Canham, former Michigan Athletic Director
They hired me … to win. I’d never heard anybody ask me anything about my graduation rates.
— Nolan Richardson, former Arkansas basketball coach
College isn’t for everyone, and anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to use you. Do something else with your life …
— Bobby Knight, Texas Tech basketball coach
Our bottom line is educating students, whereas the bottom line for the pros is making profits. Athletics contributes to [a] well-rounded education.
— Myles Brand, NCAA President
In Chapters 2 and 3 you learned that in some sports the revenue athletes generate for their university — their marginal revenue product — is significantly greater than the value of the scholarship. We referred to this difference as monopsonistic rent, a form of profit that is collected by the university and the athletic department. It is the result of cartel behavior by the members of the NCAA. Because monopsonistic rent is a form of economic exploitation, economists and others suggest that players be paid a wage. This idea is controversial.
One argument against paying college athletes is that they already get compensation in the form of a college education. The quality of that education will vary from school to school and from individual to individual; some athletes at the University of Southern California may take full advantage of the educational resources of that institution and graduate with degrees that enable them to embark on successful careers. Other, less motivated, students at USC may try to skate by with minimum effort. In this regard athletes behave like other students; some work harder than others. In addition, some USC athletes — perhaps those from disadvantaged backgrounds in South Central Los Angeles or other poor urban environments — may be poorly prepared for college; but we could say the same thing about non-athletes as well. Nevertheless, the question remains: how similar are the educational experiences of athletes compared to their non-athlete peers? In other words, any argument that athletes should not be paid because they are receiving a benefit in the form of an education assumes that athletes graduate at roughly the same rate as other students and the quality of the education they receive is comparable. How much emphasis does the NCAA and its members place on the “student” part of “student–athlete?”
Fast fact. Dexter Manley is a former defensive lineman who played for the Washington Redskins from 1981-1989, and then briefly for Phoenix and Tampa Bay. Manley’s career was marred by drug addiction and his surprising admission that he was illiterate. Manley attended Oklahoma State for three years before turning pro without anyone knowing, or caring, that he could not read. After spending several years in prison for cocaine possession, Manley was employed washing cars in Florida. A similar story involves basketball player Kevin Ross. Between 1978 and 1982 Ross played for Creighton University in Omaha. Ross was functionally illiterate when he was admitted to Creighton. After fours years his eligibility was finished and he left without a degree and still illiterate. He subsequently enrolled in the fourth grade classes at West Side Prep Elementary School in Chicago and eventually learned to read. He is now employed as a janitor in Kansas City. 4.2 How committed is the NCAA to academics?
Before we examine the specific academic issues of admissions, eligibility, and graduation rates, let us again briefly mention two NCAA policies that seem to contradict the Association’s commitment to the education of student-athletes.
In 1972 the NCAA ruled that freshmen were allowed to play football and basketball (four years previously a similar ruling allowed freshmen eligibility in all other sports). Prior to 1968, the NCAA banned freshmen participation in all sports, but they were only able to enforce that ban in championship events. That left freshmen eligibility to the discretion of the universities. Ivy League schools tended to restrict freshmen, the Big Ten Conference limited freshmen participation to students making adequate academic progress, but other schools and conferences were more lenient.
Arguments against freshmen eligibility were based on the belief that incoming student-athletes needed a year to adapt to the rigors of college, and learn to balance the demands between class, study, and practice time before allowing them to suit up and to travel. Think about your own experience. Was your transition from high school to college smooth and painless or difficult and scary? Did you ever consider dropping out during your first year? Would the additional burden of playing a sport — daily practices and team meetings, weight training, scrimmages, and travel — have made that transition easier or harder? If the NCAA is serious about ensuring that student-athletes succeed in the classroom, why not prohibit or limit their athletics participation in their first year to give them a chance to adapt to college? Or is it possible that most NCAA member institutions deem freshmen too valuable (in terms of the revenues they produce) to keep them off the field or the court?
In 1973 the NCAA decided to allow member institutions to offer athletes one-year renewable scholarships. Prior to that, universities typically granted students financial aid for the entire duration of their eligibility. For a student athlete, a running back on the football team for example, such a scholarship was especially valuable because it meant that even if he suffered a severe injury and was unable to play, his scholarship would not be revoked and he could complete his degree. After the 1973 decision was enacted (Bylaw 15.3.3), this player’s academic future was less certain because the university could choose to not renew the scholarship if it believed that he could no longer play football. But without financial support from the scholarship he might not finish his degree. It is easy to understand why the NCAA would make such a decision on behalf of its member institutions if the primary concern was money — why offer financial aid to a player unable to perform? But how can we reconcile such an action with the best interests of injured student-athletes’ education?
In the remainder of this chapter we consider evidence that suggests that the NCAA and its member institutions are not fully committed to ensuring a quality education for student-athletes. The reason for this is simple: every hour spent in the library, the classroom or the computer lab is one less hour spent on athletics practice and training. How will the football team or the basketball team win enough games to qualify for a berth in a bowl game or post-season tournament if the players spend more time studying than practicing and playing? If you are a coach or the Athletic Director will you and your school receive greater financial rewards and publicity if the graduation rate and GPAs of your athletes increase, or if you win the big game against your archrival and qualify for post-season competition?
Suppose that Jennifer, our hypothetical high school athlete, is recruited by the University of Southern California. As we first saw in Chapter 1, NCAA rules stipulate that to play at USC she must meet the initial eligibility requirements (Article 14 of the Bylaws). As of August 2005, she is required to complete 14 “core courses” in high school (mainly consisting of English, Mathematics, and Natural and Social Science classes; remedial courses are not counted), earn a core GPA of at least 2.0, and graduate from high school. The number of core courses will increase to 16 in 2008. She must also earn a minimum score on the SAT (sum of Math and Verbal, each out of 800) or ACT (sum of English, Math, Reading, and Science subscores, each out of 36) tests. The minimum SAT or ACT score depends on her GPA; if she has a lower GPA she must get a higher test score, if her test score is low she must earn a higher GPA. Table 4.1 shows different combinations of test scores and GPA that would make her eligible. If Jennifer has, for example, an 800 SAT and a 2.75 GPA she easily meets the eligibility requirement (she is, in NCAA-language, a qualifier).
Table 4.1 NCAA Freshmen-eligibility standards for 2006-07
Core GPASAT (Verbal and Math)ACT (Sum of subscores)
≥3.55 400 37
3.50 420 39
3.25 520 46
3.00 620 52
2.75 720 59
2.50 820 68
2.25 920 77
2.00 1010 86
What happens if Jennifer is a non-qualifer because she does not meet these requirements? According to NCAA bylaws, she can still attend the college or university of her choice, but during her first year she cannot participate in intercollegiate athletics (practice, play, or travel with the team) or receive athletics-based financial aid. She can still be awarded a scholarship, but it must be based on need and not athletic ability, and the funds cannot come from the athletics department. In addition, she will lose one year of eligibility.1 She can practice, compete, and receive an athletic scholarship after her first year if she makes satisfactory progress toward her degree requirements.
Unfortunately for Jennifer, she wants to attend USC, which is a member of the Pac 10 Conference. Along with most of the other major DI conferences, the Pac 10 imposes restrictions on non-qualifiers that are stricter than NCAA rules. As a recruited athlete, unless she is able to get a waiver from the NCAA Initial Eligibility Waiver Committee, she will be permanently ineligible for aid, practice, and competition. If she gets a partial waiver, the Pac 10 allows just four per school, with two in men’s sports and two in women’s, and no more than one in any one sport. Non-qualifying students that transfer from a junior college or a non-conference four-year institution are eligible if they meet NCAA transfer requirements (see following paragraph). The Big 12 Conference goes even further. Students that were non-qualifiers at the time of their initial enrollment (full or part time) at any two- or four-year institution are permanently ineligible for practice, competition or financial aid. Even a student that enrolls at a junior college and earns an Associate degree with a 4.0 GPA will never be eligible to play at a Big 12 school. In the SEC, only students with a core high school GPA of at least 2.25 can ever become eligible after enrolling as a non-qualifier. Conferences began imposing these stricter requirements in the mid-1990s to deter schools from recruiting good athletes–poor students with the promise of "non-athletic" scholarships and a chance to play after a first year filled with easy coursework.
Students transferring after a year or more at another four-year institution are eligible for practice and aid if they meet their new school’s requirements for satisfactory academic progress, although they must wait one year to compete. Eligibility requirements are different for junior college transfers. Students attend junior college for numerous reasons: they may want to remain close to home; they may have a job or family commitments that require them to remain in the area; they may be unsure if college is right for them; they may not yet be academically qualified for a four-year institution; or they may feel their athletics skills still require some “seasoning” before they make the jump to a NCAA institution.2 Regardless of the reasons, suppose Jennifer would have qualified for admission to USC but chose to first attend her local junior college, El Camino College in Torrance, California. Now, in order to be eligible at USC, she needs to complete at least one year at the junior college with an average of 12 hours per semester and a 2.0 GPA. If she would have been a non-qualifier to USC directly out of high school, she needs an Associate of Arts degree from El Camino, 48 semester hours (with at least three semesters of residency), and a 2.0 to become eligible. Again, if she fails to meet these requirements she can still choose to transfer as a non-qualifier, forgo an athletic scholarship, sit out one year, and hope to do well enough to qualify the following year. Transfer rules and regulations can be quite confusing and even Athletic Directors with years of experience complain about them.
As explained in Chapter 1, the NCAA enacted its first rules on initial eligibility in 1964 with passage of Rule 1.6. This was modified by Rule 2.0 (1971), Propositions 48 (1986), 42 (1989), and 16 (1992), and Proposal 68 (1997). In general, the requirements for qualifier status have become stricter over time. What is the rationale behind these rules? On one hand, it appears that they are in the best interests of the students. They are designed to prevent schools from admitting a good athlete who has little chance, or no intention, of getting an education. If the coaching staff can squeeze one or two solid seasons out of these athletes before they are discarded, then from the perspective of the Athletic Department, these are blue-chip recruits. Even with the current rules, there is substantial evidence of student-athletes being admitted who are not prepared and unlikely to complete a degree.
Some economists and some college coaches argue that these rules are often initiated and promoted by schools like Duke, Northwestern and Stanford who can easily attract and retain students who are good athletes and good scholars. The high school students who apply to these universities — both athletes and non-athletes alike — tend to have excellent grades, high SAT scores, and want to attend an undergraduate institution that is known for its academic exclusivity and intellectual rigor. Increasing admissions requirements from 2.0 to 2.5, or an SAT score from 800 to 1000 will have virtually no effect on a school like Duke because their “pool” of prospective student-athletes have GPAs and test scores much higher than these thresholds. A school like North Carolina State, on the other hand, may have a substantial number of high school student-athletes hovering around 2.0 and 800. Even a slight increase in the minimum requirements will prevent NC State from admitting these recruits.
Why would Duke oppose an NCAA regulation that is cloaked in the language of good intentions and gives it a competitive advantage over rivals like North Carolina State? This line of reasoning makes sense if you remember the fragile dynamics of the cartel and the prevalence of intra-cartel cheating. Schools like NC State, UNLV, Arkansas State, or Temple have a clear disadvantage when it comes to recruiting good athletes with excellent academic credentials from high school, and schools like Duke, Northwestern and Stanford have every incentive to exploit this disadvantage.3
Rules like Prop 48, which was the first to require minimum scores on standardized college entrance exams, have drawn the ire of coaches like John Thompson and John Cheney (former basketball coaches at Georgetown and Temple respectively) as well as college presidents, especially those representing historically black schools like Grambling State University in Louisiana (Dealy, 1990, 115 ff.). They argue that these requirements disproportionately punish inner-city kids who are good athletes but poor students.4 Granted, these may be students who have zero interest in academics, but they may also be students who are caught in a crummy school system, are from households where education was not encouraged, or grew up in an environment where their parents or guardians were absent, in jail or dealing drugs. Athletics, regardless of whether they make it to the pros or not, is — rightly or wrongly — seen as a way out of the “hood” or the projects. One may certainly question the motivation of coaches like Cheney and Thompson (are they more concerned with a student’s academic progress or his shooting percentage?) but they raise important questions about the rationale underlying minimum academic standards.
Fast fact. In 1999, in Cureton v. NCAA, four black high school athletes sued the NCAA alleging that the inclusion of minimum assessment test scores resulted in “unjustified disparate impact on African-American student-athletes” A federal court judge agreed with them but the case was overturned on appeal in higher federal court. However, in 2003 the NCAA modified Prop 16 so that the minimum acceptable SAT score was 400 (combined with a GPA of 3.55). Because students score 400 even if they answer all of the SAT questions incorrectly, the SAT is effectively no longer an admissions requirement for some student-athletes. As it currently stands, since a high school student can score as low as 400 on the SAT yet still remain eligible for admission to a DI institution, the primary determinant is the student’s transcript, her coursework and GPA. When a higher SAT score was required, it was common to find student-athletes taking the exam multiple times before qualifying, or cheating by having someone else take the exam for them. Since the minimum SAT score is now easy to reach (all a student needs to do to get a 400 is to sign her name on the exam), a student’s transcript is the deciding factor. This opens up many questions about the legitimacy of a student-athlete’s transcript. A recent case at University High in Miami, Florida (see Box 4.1) triggered an investigation by the NCAA into so-called “diploma mills,” schools that sell a high school degree while requiring little, if any, actual academic accomplishment.
Who determines if a transcript is legitimate or not? In theory the NCAA does. In a student’s senior year of high school she must submit a student release form that authorizes the release of her transcript and test scores to NCAA member institutions. The transcript and scores must be sent directly to the NCAA’s Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse in Iowa City, Iowa by the student’s high school and the College Board (if SAT) or American College Testing, Inc. (if ACT). The Clearinghouse determines if the student graduated, completed the required 14 core courses (16 courses for students entering college in fall 2008), and met the minimum GPA and SAT (ACT) scores. After reviewing this information, the NCAA certifies the student as a qualifier or a non-qualifier (the “partial qualifier” exemption was eliminated in 1989) and makes this information available to universities. But remember, even if you are a “non-qualifier” you can still be admitted to a university (although you cannot be given an athletic scholarship, play or practice during your first year, and you lose a year of eligibility). Additionally, the Clearinghouse will determine your amateur status, whether you played, or attempted to play with a professional team, or received any payment or compensation from your athletics participation.5 If you are not a true amateur you may be ineligible to play college sports.
It makes sense to have the NCAA determine initial eligibility because the alternative, leaving the determination up to the universities, would encourage cheating. Nevertheless, the process is hardly foolproof. You can probably think of a number of ways a student’s transcript and test scores could be illegitimate without the Clearinghouse knowing. And sometimes the Clearinghouse makes mistakes; as one example, consider the story of Omar Williams who played basketball at George Washington University in the District of Columbia from 2002-06. According to an article in the Washington Post, “Williams was accepted at George Washington after failing to graduate in five years from his original high school and receiving no grades at three prep schools in the next two years … [the NCAA] certified his transcript without any verification, making him academically qualified for a basketball scholarship” [emphasis added] (Schlabach, 2006b). Not only did the Clearinghouse fail to carefully scrutinize Williams’ academic record, the NCAA bylaws actually create an incentive for students who are not performing well academically in their senior year to flunk out of school, or to drop out, and re-enroll for grade twelve at another institution. If their academic performance improves they can gain initial eligibility and be able to play for four years. However, if instead they enroll in a junior college for one or two years to improve their grades they will lose one or two years of eligibility (Barr, 2004).
Box 4.1 Diploma Mills
The NCAA has begun cracking down on secondary schools like University High in Miami. The Association claims that these institutions, so-called “diploma mills” are nothing more than correspondence schools. For a fee, reportedly $399 at University High, a student gets a transcript that “proves” he graduated with a GPA high enough to pass muster with the Clearinghouse. In many cases these schools have no teachers, classrooms, or textbooks, and exams, if any, are open-book. A recent New York Times article points out that part of the problem is the Association’s own making, since 2000 the Clearinghouse has delegated more responsibility for attesting to the legitimacy of a student high school transcript to the high schools themselves (Thamel and Wilson, 2005). Compounding this is a lack of government regulation of private secondary institutions like University High including requirements like exit exams. This has created a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality among university athletic departments and coaches.
We should also mention that some athletes who are admitted to college are less than stellar citizens. In some cases, the schools are well aware that a certain player has already accumulated some crime-related baggage. Take, for example, Miami linebacker Willie Williams or the University of Oregon’s Rodney Woods. Williams was admitted to the University of Miami despite pleading no contest to charges on destruction of property and misdemeanor assault in the summer of 2004 (these actions took place in Gainesville, FL while Williams was on a recruiting visit at the University of Florida). Williams was already on probation for burglary and theft (“Williams must meet special academic conditions,” 2004). Woods, a defensive back, was admitted to Oregon in 2003 despite having participated in the fatal beating of Christopher O’Leary, age 17, at a party in Palmdale, CA in 2000.6 Fast fact. Willie Williams never became a staring player at Miami so began shopping for another school. He ended up at West Los Angeles College, a junior college, in August 2006. Will his eleven previous arrests prevent him from returning to a DI institution in the future? In other cases, many athletes take advantage of their “big man on campus” status and engage in criminal activity. As an example, consider Marcus Vick of Virginia Tech. Vick, quarterback for the Hokies and brother of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, was suspended by the university for the 2004 season because of convictions for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, possession of marijuana, and reckless driving. In 2006 he was dismissed from the university because of accumulated driving tickets and an incident involving unsportsmanlike conduct against a University of Louisville player in the Gator Bowl. Vick’s checkered college career is summarized in Box 4.2.
Box 4.2 Marcus Vick’s Rap Sheet
July 13, 2002 Vick is cited for speeding (60 mph in 45-mph zone) in Newport News, Va.
Oct. 11, 2002 Vick is cited for speeding (49 mph in 25-mph zone) in Montgomery County, Va.
Nov. 1, 2002 Vick is cited for speeding (44 mph in 25-mph zone) Blacksburg, Va.
Sept. 2, 2003 Vick, as a redshirt freshman, is suspended by Coach Frank Beamer one game for violating unspecified team policies.
Jan. 30, 2003 Vick is cited for driving with a suspended license in Newport News, Va.
Feb. 17, 2004 Vick, then 19, and two teammates are charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, which involved serving alcohol to underage girls in the football players' apartment Jan. 27. All three are convicted but avoid jail and reduce their fines by pleading no contest before a scheduled retrial.
May 2004 Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Jim Weaver suspends the three players for the first three games of the 2004 season.
July 3, 2004 Vick is stopped for speeding (88 mph in 65-mph zone) and charged with reckless driving and possession of marijuana in New Kent, Va. He later pleads guilty to the first charge and no contest to the latter.
July 6, 2004 Weaver suspends Vick from the team indefinitely.
Aug. 3, 2004 The university suspends Vick for the entire fall season.
Oct. 1, 2005 After running out of bounds during a game in Morgantown, W.Va., Vick makes an obscene gesture to the crowd and bumps West Virginia assistant coach Tony Gibson's head with his forearm
Dec. 17, 2005 Vick was arrested in Hampton, Va., for speeding (38 mph in 25-mph zone) and is charged with driving on a suspended or revoked license, a misdemeanor.
Jan. 2, 2006 In a Gator Bowl victory over Louisville, Vick stomps on the calf of Cardinals lineman Elvis Dumervil, who had just sacked him. Game officials do not see the incident, which is replayed numerous times on television.
Jan. 6, 2006 Virginia Tech permanently dismisses Vick.
Source: Schlabach (2006a)
In 1999 star wide receiver Peter Warrick of Florida State was prosecuted for misdemeanor petty theft (“Warrick pleads guilty,” 1999). With the help of a dishonest employee, Warrick bought $400 worth of clothes for $21.40 at a department store in Tallahassee. Warrick’s lawyer downplayed his client’s actions by saying it was “only a discount” and nothing more. Lawrence Phillips, a former star running back at Nebraska, has a long history of abuse to women (“Phillips arrested,” 2005). The Benedict-Crosset Study, published in 1995, noted the alarming statistic that “male student-athletes made up 3.3 percent of the male student population, yet accounted for 19 percent of the reported perpetrators of sexual assault on college campuses” (Hyde, 2004).
While this behavior might seem distasteful to us, and we may question why such people are allowed to remain at our nation’s universities, we need to remember that ultimately players like Williams, Woods, Vick, Warrick, and Phillips help their university win games and generate substantial revenues. As long as the team is winning, occasional outbursts of criminal activity are more likely to be tolerated. There is also the possibility that being given a second (or third, or fourth) chance can help someone turn his or her life around. We all make mistakes, and hopefully we learn from them. Consider the case of JamesOn Curry (yes, that’s the correct spelling of his first name), who was arrested during his senior year of high school for selling marijuana to an undercover officer. JamesOn had already committed to North Carolina, but the university withdrew their offer after his felony conviction (he admitted his guilt and was sentenced to 200 hours of community service and probation). Oklahoma State took a chance on a promising talent (he was the leading scorer in North Carolina high school basketball history), but they ended up with an outstanding citizen too. Having someone else have faith in you can sometimes give you faith in yourself.