Mary Willingham's stunning charges that 60 percent of the University of North Carolina's (UNC) football and basketball players read below the 8th grade level, and eight percent to 10 percent read at or below a third grade level, have reignited questions and controversies, not only around North Carolina's beleaguered efforts to restore its academic reputation, but about college athletics more generally. Although some members of the UNC community have questioned Willingham's data, there is no denying the fraught relationship between big-time college athletics and colleges' academic mission.
From the very beginning of intercollegiate athletics, the pursuit of athletic success has forced compromises with academic integrity. In spite of the best of intentions, over a hundred years of attempts to check encroachments of intercollegiate athletic programs on colleges' academic standards have floundered. We are in the midst of the latest, and what many believe is the most promising, of these reforms, the NCAA's institution of the Academic Progress Rate (APR) legislation in 2004. The late Myles Brand, who introduced the APR in 2004 as President of the NCAA, called it "the most far-reaching effort of its kind." This legislation requires that institutions ensure that their athletes meet yearly benchmarks for progress toward graduation, or face team sanctions.
The evidence suggests that the APR legislation is achieving its intended goal of improving graduation rates, particularly among athletes playing the high revenue sports of basketball and football. On the other hand, research by the University of South Carolina's Collegiate Sports Research Institute (CSRI) indicates that the picture is not as rosy as it first may appear. The CSRI reports that Football Bowl Series (FBS) colleges graduate 18 percent fewer football players than non-athletes, and 24 percent fewer African American football players. The CSRI report also notes that conferences vary to the extent in which they graduate their football players, with the major conferences faring the worst.
Even if the APR legislation succeeds in eliminating the gap between the graduations rates of football and basketball players and those of the non-athlete population, concerns raised by Willingham about the quality of athletes' education linger. The documentary, Schooled: The Price of College Sports, raises disturbing questions about the tactics used to keep up APRs. In the documentary, Dominque Foxworth, a graduate of Maryland, and the President of the NFL Players' Association notes, "Your [college's] challenge is to get them eligible; it's not about educating them."
To be fair, thanks to the dedicated services of academic support personnel, many athletes do receive an education that was not available to them in high school or grade school. Yet, many athletes lack the background and motivation to be successful, even with extensive tutoring. While support staff and dedicated faculty can provide high quality remedial programs, they cannot do athletes classwork for them. Pressures to cheat and engage in academic fraud mount as unprepared student athletes are held to the same standards as other students.
We are not doing student athletes a favor by admitting them into academic programs that they are not qualified for. Many of those who struggle to maintain eligibility come from poor families. Growing inequality in the U.S. has led to a worsening achievement gap that makes it increasingly difficult for poor students to receive the education that they need to realize the American dream of working their way out of poverty.
If college administrators and boards of trustees insist upon admitting student-athletes who are not yet ready to do college work, then in all fairness, non-degree programs ought to be established for helping these student-athletes to get the education they missed. Furthermore, if college presidents are fully committed to upholding academic standards and providing their weakest students with real education, they need to involve their faculty and academic support specialists, like Willingham, to far a far greater extent than most do at present. The APR reform, which was undertaken without their input, is creating a whole new set of problems. Faculty ought to be given responsibility for setting and overseeing admissions criteria and maintaining quality remedial, as well as conventional educational programs.