Do student-athletes get cheated out of an education?

As March Madness ignites Americans’ yearly obsession with college basketball games and broken brackets, a new book is calling attention to a different kind of madness: the systemic academic fraud at the center of college sports.

“Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes and the Future of Big-Time College Sports,” published March 15, details a broken model for life as a student-athlete, focusing on a flawed NCAA eligibility system that rewards players for remaining eligible at any cost.

Authors Mary Willingham, a former UNC academic counselor for athletes who struggled with basic reading and writing skills, and Jay Smith, a professor of history at UNC, offer a deep dive into the “paper class” scandal that unfolded on their campus from the early 1990s to 2010. Over nearly two decades, athletes were increasingly enrolled in courses that never met, often didn’t have an instructor assigned to them and nearly guaranteed an A or B on the single essay assignment.

Echoing “All the President’s Men” and its explanation of the Watergate scandal, “Cheated” investigates the campus leaders who allowed the athletic department’s academic policies to remain shrouded in secrecy and the broader moral issue of prioritizing on-field performance over a quality education.

“What (athletes) are told, in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, is that they should regard their academic experiences as a necessary evil or as a fringe benefit to enjoy only as time allows,” Willingham and Smith wrote. The upshot for the thousands of athletes who never make it onto a professional team — only about two percent of students who receive football or basketball scholarships are drafted, according a The Wall Street Journal report — is that they leave college with few educational skills to assist them in finding a job outside of sports.

Smith, who has been teaching at UNC since 1990, openly protested the university’s attempts to keep the scandal quiet when reports of class fraud first emerged. He met with school administrators and engaged other faculty members in the discussion, ultimately partnering with Willingham to write “Cheated.”

This week, Smith spoke to us about the book’s impact, as well as his commitment to improving life on campus for student-athletes, keeping NCAA policies in the public eye and building a system in which academic goals no longer live in the shadow of college sports.

Question: Who did you write the book for? School administrators? NCAA leaders? The athletes? Fans?

Jay Smith: Maybe we have delusions of grandeur, but we’re hoping to reach all of those people, all of those audiences, casual sports fans included, people who instinctively supported the college sports industry without thinking very hard about the structural inequities in that system.

But I would say that our first target audience would be athletes themselves. We would love to get athletes thinking harder about their relationship with their institutions, coaches and the system and to begin voicing their own concerns. The athletes have been the one constituency pretty much excluded from the conversation that’s been going on over the last several years. We would like to think that we are helping them to claim their voice.

Faculty are also important. We would like to shake the faculty around the country and get them to wake up and recognize the important moral issues that are at stake.

Question: How does it feel to release “Cheated” while still working at UNC?

JS: The atmosphere is still tense on the UNC campus. There are still plenty of faculty and administrators who are not happy with me for continuing to keep the story in the public eye and for continuing to ask questions. But, on the other hand, ever since the Wainstein report, (which analyzed the prevalency of “paper classes” on athletes’ transcripts and highlighted academic counselors’ role in putting them there), was released last October, I really do sense that the climate of opinion in and around Chapel Hill has tilted in favor of those of us who demanded accountability and who offered a critique of the university’s handling of the scandal between 2010 and 2014.

Question: “Cheated” outlines how academic support programs for athletes become more like “eligibility machines.” If current NCAA standards remain in place, could improvements be made?

JS: That’s a tough question. Obviously, improvements can always be made in any system if its caretakers are more attentive to maintaining integrity, closing loopholes and detecting, identifying and openly discussing problems when they see them. All of those things could help improve matters in the current system.

But to tell you the truth, Mary Willingham and I have come to the conclusion that the current system is just unworkable. Cheating, fraud and the bending or ignoring of academic standards is just going to be inevitable in the current system because of the way in which academic ineligibility is required for participation in athletics.

So many of the guys who are recruited, especially for football and basketball teams, are academically underprepared for college work and they are pushed harder than just about any other athlete on campus to devote time and energy to their sports. And so academic counselors and sympathetic faculty are put in an impossible situation in which they are basically forced to find ways, underhanded if necessary, to keep these guys eligible and on the field. We just don’t see that system truly working efficiently and fairly in the future.

Question: What solutions can you suggest to address the broken student-athlete model?

JS: The first solution we propose in the book’s conclusion is that football and basketball be spun off from the university as autonomous businesses, autonomous commercial enterprises, in which athletes are recognized as the employees they really are, given the rights and protections and bargaining power that employees at other multi-million dollar businesses have.

You could make the pursuit of an education one aspect of the compensation package they are offered. This would have the benefit of still providing an educational opportunity for those who wanted it and were equipped to pursuit it. It would also maintain some link between the sports and the academic missions of the institutions. That’s the solution we would prefer.

Another solution, and one that’s being pushed by other outspoken groups, is to reshape the system in a way that truly subordinates athletics to academics, cutting down on practice time, ensuring that all athletes get the remedial work that they need, giving them access to all majors and courses available to all other students on campus and seeing to it that the athletic department is no longer free to disguise its operations.

If all of those things were truly followed, then maybe the student-athlete model could be revived and applied and made viable. But we’re skeptical about institutions’ willingness to make those changes.

Question: In the book’s conclusion, you shared your optimism about a nationwide push for change. Are you still optimistic?

JS: Well, we are more optimistic than we have been in the past several years. The main reason is that pending litigation offers the real prospect that the current system will be torn down. And that would be a happy outcome for athletes and for all of us who care about fairness. We’re trying hard to be optimistic. This thing could be settled in the courts in the next few years.

Mary and I are also heartened to see how much attention these issues are suddenly getting over the past two years in the national media. The kinds of discussions being generated are so much more substantial than they used to be. That’s another reason we’re hopeful.

Question: Do you think young athletes would rally around restructuring the student-athlete experience to focus on academics in the same way they back efforts to earn money for their on-field efforts? Or is the value of education something you only understand as you mature?

JS: I think you’re on to something there. But Mary Willingham has told me many, many times that a lot of her athletes, the people she worked with in football and basketball, did value education. And they really did want to get their degrees and wanted to major in the fields they cared about. But the system denied them that opportunity.

I think there is a tendency on our part, the part of the general public, to underestimate how much those guys do want an education. But it’s true that they probably get a little bit more excited about the prospect of earning good salaries for playing their sport and thus being able to help out their families.

Our position is that it’s incumbent upon us — those of us who run universities and the sports fans who have been watching and enjoying these guys’ athletic efforts — to find a system where they can have both: fair compensation for all of the hard work they do and access to education.

Question: Again and again in “Cheated,” you note how easy it is for people at all levels of the university system to get caught up in the glamour of college sports. Indeed, people might take the title of the book to mean they, the fans, were cheated out of enjoying fair competition. What will it take to keep the conversation focused on the athletes and the education promised to them?

JS: We intentionally used the title as a double entendre. The athletes themselves are cheated — that’s what we want to emphasize — but lots of people associated with UNC also gained unfair advantages over their competitors.

What we hope the book accomplishes is to show that the problems at UNC were not unique to that university. The pressures that were brought to bear on the academic infrastructure were not unique. And, most importantly, the forms of mistreatment and exploitation and abuse that athletes at UNC went through were not unique.If “Cheated” can accomplish one thing, we would like it to focus the national conversation squarely on how athletes themselves are abused and mistreated in this system. Instead of seeing athletes as cheaters, as lucky duckies who should be thanking us for giving them a chance to be on our campuses, we need to see them as the abused.

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