A Broken System: College Basketball’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Lately, there has been a lot of controversy about athletes targeting specific classes at the University of North Carolina. Allegedly, these classes included no tests or quizzes, no-show professors and attendance as a large portion of the class grade. While the issue of academic fraud received some attention, and people are calling for it to get more, UNC really is not the problem here.

At EVERY school there are classes where athletes make up an unusually large proportion of the enrollment. Some of these are music classes, some are general studies, and some are kinesiology. In many schools, you’ll see certain classes that tend to be filled with athletes, with the reputation as being easy or being time-fillers. Generally they live up to that reputation.

Therein lies the problem with this whole controversy: why are athletes thrown together into classes that refuse to challenge them? Why do schools have such low expectations for the academic achievement of their student-athletes?

Obviously, being a college athlete is essentially a full-time job, and it requires a lot of time and commitment. With coaches hired to win games and whose ability to win games hinges on the performance of those athletes, they try to minimize anything that could lead to time away from basketball. They steer the athletes towards classes like the ones at UNC, so they can focus more fully on basketball. For example, a player may be discouraged from majoring in engineering because of the labs they have to take that could interfere with practice time and could be steered to a lighter, less time-consuming major. It is always fascinating to look on a college website and see that half of the football team has the exact same major and many times it is an obscure one – like park management or housing. At schools where that is the case, they are doing the exact same thing UNC did, but the majors and classes just aren’t athlete specific.

This clustering of athletes into non-challenging majors and classes is immensely frustrating to see. These kids got recruited to school for athletics, but it is as if big time schools and coaches see them incapable of doing anything else. These coaches will tell a player to tough out an injury, or may pull a scholarship based on an inability to compete. But when it comes to academics, they encourage their players to take the easy way out. They steer them away from challenging majors into classes where they can coast and get by with minimal work and even less effort.

On one hand, they are teaching their players about overcoming adversity on the court and in life, and on the other hand, they are telling them to take the path of least resistance in the classroom. It is like the NCAA version of social promotion: allow students to achieve at a minimum level and then just keep passing them along.

What kind of message is that to send? How can schools be mad at athletes who don’t do well in class, and lament at the team GPA that reside somewhere in the low 2.0s, when the schools are the ones telling these athletes not to challenge themselves?

Players like Myron Rolle, the former Florida State safety who won a Rhodes Scholarship. or Aaron Craft, the Ohio State point guard who is a pre-med major and has gotten one B in his entire life deserve to be celebrated. Their accomplishments are inspiring, but they are held as exceptions to the rule. They are seen as outstanding student-athletes, and all that is right with college athletics.

But what about highlighting Dasmine Cathey, the college football player for the University of Memphis who entered college with a first grade reading level… the one who needed guidance and a real education, but took elementary algebra and reading appreciation his freshman year. Those classes aren’t going to help him succeed in life. They will only help him stay eligible and get on the football field. These stories need to be told because they are more prominent than anyone would like to imagine.

Now not only does clustering athletes in certain majors create a self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations for the student-athletes, but it also stigmatizes them in the broader campus community and causes a great divide on many college campuses. At most schools, athletes are housed in essentially their own dorms, eat in athletic dining facilities, and take certain classes with other athletes. They are divided from the general student body, and while the dorms and dining hall are seen as amenities athletes get, their academics get stigmatized by non-athletic students. People will look to take classes that a lot of athletes are in because they believe that indicates a class is easy. This just creates more division between athletes and non-athletes, and furthers the stereotype that athletes only get into a given school because they play a sport.

While this is shameful, the biggest shame of all is the absolute waste of a scholarship these classes are for the student-athlete. Going to college and getting an education is all about bettering yourself and preparing you to succeed in life after graduation, but with classes like the ones at UNC, how can it be argued this scholarship is being used effectively?

A naval weapons class has no practical use for a basketball player at UNC. What about classes on money management or business practices? And I’m not saying those classes aren’t offered, but they are not the ones athletes tend to take. At some point in life, whether right after college or 20 years down the line, football and basketball will no longer be viable career options, and athletes will need to look elsewhere for employment because very few will earn enough money during their playing career to support them.

But what jobs are they prepared to take? By being put into classes just to get by, these schools aren’t preparing them to enter the real world and get a job outside of something to do with basketball (coaching, broadcasting, etc.) because they didn’t learn those skills in college.

So while the media can focus solely on UNC in their academic fraud case, people really need to look at the broader problem here. The expectations are set low for students. They perform to those expectations, and while they will finish with a degree if they stay all four years, how prepared are they for life after basketball if the only classes they take are designed to not challenge them? It is an unfortunate reality that must be dealt with, not just at UNC, but everywhere. Otherwise, this particular free education travesty will continue to live on.

What do you think?

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