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Guest column: College athletes’ experience doesn’t mirror non-athletes

Academic scandals are an occasional and troubling feature in big time college sports. But as important as they are, they can also distract us from far more systemic issues where college sports meet college education.

Scandals can be shocking. For instance, last week the NCAA revealed its latest allegations against the University of North Carolina where over a period of 18 years, hundreds of fake classes were offered to thousands of students, many of them scholarship athletes. Gerald Gurney, a University of Oklahoma professor and president of the Drake Group for Academic Integrity in College Sport said that “UNC is the mother of all academic fraud violations, there’s no doubt in my mind about cooperation of friendly faculty and the cover-up.”

Such high profile instances of academic fraud reflect not just a violation of NCAA rules but the cheating of athletes out of an education, the main compensation that they receive for playing their sport. Yet there are more systemic issues which, while not as lurid as cheating scandals, may have a greater impact on many more college athletes. Here I address several such issues.

First, not all academic degrees are available to college athletes. When I first started teaching my big spring course at CU, Introduction to Sports Governance, I asked around about what times of the day would be the best to have scholarship athletes enroll. Since the final third of the class covers NCAA issues, the class is always better with the participation of some NCAA athletes, whether from lacrosse, tennis, soccer or football.

I learned that certain parts of the day are fully occupied by team practices, mornings for football, afternoons for track, and so on. Practice schedules limit which courses could be taken, and consequently what majors could be achieved. Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback and Boulder High School student, has explained that he wanted to major in pre-medicine at Northwestern, but the time and schedule demands of playing football meant that he was encouraged to choose psychology instead.

Colter’s experience is not unique. In 2014, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette compiled the declared majors of athletes in top football and basketball programs around the country. They found that in many universities, athletes clustered in a small number of degree programs. For instance, about 65% of the Pittsburgh football team were enrolled in just two majors. Given these numbers, and perhaps not surprisingly, a survey of Big 10 and Mid-America Conference athletes by Amanda Paule-Koba, a professor at Bowling Green University, found that about 30% of these students were enrolled in majors that did not match their career ambitions.

Compounding these challenges, if a scholarship athlete wishes to change majors, they may not be able to as NCAA rules create some obstacles. To maintain eligibility, athletes are required to be making adequate progress toward their degrees. But changing majors might mean having to take a brief step backwards, to complete required prerequisites for instance. So students may be faced with staying in a degree program that is no longer their career ambition or risking their scholarship.

Of course, it is true that some scholarship athletes are also outstanding students, like CU football player Chidobe Awuzie who graduated with a degree in business in three and a half years and is now preparing for a possible career in the NFL. While Awuzie is exceptional, the fact is that most scholarship athletes are like most students in their late teens and early 20s — they often take more than four (or five) years to graduate and likely are want to change majors a few times along the way.

One reason that some degree programs are, as a practical matter, not available to college athletes is the insistence that they are just normal students with their sports just a normal extracurricular activity. For instance, in a report earlier this month on how universities can avoid academic fraud related to athletics, the American Council on Education recommended that, “Every effort should be made so that a student-athlete’s life on campus mirrors as closely as possible the life of all students.”

This is just silly.

The reality is that college athletes do not have a college experience that mirrors that of non-athletes. For instance, in a 2015 Pac-12 survey of 409 of its athletes from 9 universities, students reported spending 50 hours per week on their sport. If we professors expect them to spend 3 hours out of class for every hour in it, then that adds another 60 hours per week to their schedule (based on a 15-hour course schedule). Sport and study take up 110 hours of the 168 hours in a week, leaving just 58 for sleeping, eating, socializing and so on.

It’s no wonder that the Pac-12 students reported that “they are too exhausted to study effectively, that they are unable to devote enough time to both their academics and tests, and that athletic stress negatively impacts their academic focus.” Compounding these challenges, many college athletes also travel frequently while school is in session for competitions and necessarily miss classes, sometimes dozens of classes in a single semester. Being a college athlete is special, but it is also unique when compared to the college experience of most students.

Our educational institutions should accommodate. While college athletes often have an impressive foundation of academic support, and CU is no doubt among the best, there are a few additional steps to take that make sense. One is to quickly move past the fiction that scholarship athletes are regular students. Universities should be allowed to tailor a limited number of classes for athletes that are custom built to work with their travel schedules. For example, during a semester a class might meet 30 or 45 times on a rigid Tuesday/Thursday or MWF schedule. It would not be difficult to design a class that meets 30 or 45 times during a semester that works around a basketball or golf schedule.

Sure, such classes would have to be overseen carefully to ensure accountability and rigor, but that is easy. Even one or two of these custom classes during the semester could make a big difference for athletes struggling with the time demands of big time college sports.

Similarly, college athletics provides untapped and unique educational opportunities. For instance, last week CU Buffs women’s basketball coach JR Payne took her team to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, following their win at nearby Mississippi Valley State. Currently the CU lacrosse team is taking a 12-day trip to Australia. When such opportunities occur, teams might take along a professor of (for instance) ethnic studies, political science or international relations to add on an enhanced educational component to the travel. It would not be difficult to turn a series of such unique opportunities into coursework for academic credit.

The NCAA and universities should be vigilant for students, coaches, faculty and others who try to cheat via academic fraud. But at the same time there are many things that universities can and should do to better tailor the university experience to the college athlete. If the main benefit of an athletic scholarship to most athletes is its academic rewards, then it is incumbent upon everyone in the university to be as creative and flexible as possible in figuring out how to better to deliver a high quality education, to offer true choice in degrees and to capitalize on the unique opportunities afforded by the athletics experience.

The beneficiaries of such pedagogical creativity will be the students, who, after all, are those who college athletics are supposed to be about.