Trustees | Trusteeship

The Ugly Truth of March Madness

Schools are sacrificing student success in the classroom for wins on the basketball court.
U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT   |  March 13, 2017 by Michael Poliakoff & Alexis Zhang

With the official tip-off of March Madness this week, tales of Cinderella stories and thrilling comebacks abound. But beneath the annual spectacle of the NCAA tournament lies an ugly truth: Academic misconduct and lowered standards too often are an engine that powers college sports. Far too many colleges are surrendering their academic integrity to pursue athletic glory.

Witness last year’s men’s basketball Final Four matchup between Syracuse and the University of North Carolina – two programs home to some of the most egregious examples of academic misconduct in college sports. At Syracuse, athletic department employees impersonated students in email conversations with professors, even completing and submitting assignments for them. At UNC, an administrator and a professor created a system of phantom “paper classes” to boost fraudulently student-athletes’ GPAs.

What happened at Syracuse and UNC is closer to the norm than schools and fans would like to admit. Schools strive to win on the court, but they are often less persistent in encouraging players to succeed in the classroom.

One study of admissions trends at academically selective colleges found that recruited athletes receive an advantage worth roughly 200 SAT points on the 1600 point scale. Once enrolled, 40 percent of Division I athletes did not feel positively about being able to keep up with coursework during the season. They spend an average of 34 hours per week on their athletic activities in the season – and often just as much time in the off-season. Colleges frequently steer athletes into less demanding majors, resulting in clusters around suspiciously vague programs, such as “interdepartmental studies.”

Even some of America’s most elite universities have made this Faustian bargain. Up until 2011, Stanford’s Athletic Academic Resource Center provided student-athletes with a “Courses of Interest” list, tacitly understood to be a “wink and nod” toward lightweight classes. In 2014, the University of Michigan’s president baldly acknowledged that, among athletes, “We admit students who aren’t as qualified. … [These students probably] can’t honestly, even with lots of help, do the amount of work and the quality of work it takes to make progression from year to year.”

The NCAA touts its own heavily massaged Graduation Success Rate, or GSR, as a sign that athletes are keeping pace academically, but the GSR artificially inflates athletes’ graduation rates by conveniently excluding many athlete dropouts from its calculations, provided they leave in good academic standing. The University of South Carolina’s College Sport Research Institute has found that athletes lag considerably behind their non-athlete classmates who study full-time (as NCAA athletes are required to do). In the major Division I conferences, men’s basketball players had graduation rates fully 32.6 percent lower than that of their less athletic peers.

Too often, when academics and athletics intersect, learning suffers. Athletes can leave college having learned alarmingly little. A CNN investigation found that, among players in the major cash sports of football and basketball, between 7 percent and 18 percent could read only at an elementary school level.

Watering down academic standards harms both schools and athletes. Colleges and universities are institutions of learning first and foremost: By elevating the pursuit of athletic success over their commitment to academic integrity, they place their reputations – and, in some cases, even their accreditation and funding – at risk.

NCAA football players have a 1.6 percent chance of joining the NFL. Men’s basketball players have only a 1.1 percent chance of joining the NBA. For almost all student-athletes, college marks the end of their sports trajectory. What they learn – or do not learn – as students will have lasting consequences for their personal and career development.

Student-athletes deserve better, and there are signs that watchdogs are stepping up. A newly released book by the Brookings Institution Press, “Unwinding Madness: What Went Wrong with College Sports and How to Fix It,” chronicles how college athletics has unraveled into an “educational, ethical, and economic crisis.”

Conscientious boards can look to the example set by the University System of Maryland, where then-regent Tom McMillen spearheaded reform tying coaching bonuses to athletes’ academic performance. Boards of trustees have a responsibility to exercise oversight of their schools’ athletic programs. Schools can pursue athletic success while retaining their foremost commitment to academics. Too often, priorities are reversed.

Schools must recognize the dangerous consequences of their behavior. As McMillen, himself a former Olympian and NBA basketball player, has explained: “Every time a college accepts an athlete with a seventh-grade level of reading and comprehension, a message is hammered into the impressionable minds of scores of youngsters who are debating whether to spend an hour in the library or on the courts. The message is that the rules of academia do not apply to sports stars.”

Perhaps a threshold moment for reform has arrived. For the sake of student-athletes, their families and public integrity, let’s hope so.


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