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Are Colleges and the NCAA failing our Student-Athletes?

What should we do about Student Athletes that read below grade level?

On January 8, CNN released its analysis of reading abilities among college athletes. CNN chose a sampling of public universities where open records laws apply. It sought data from a total of 37 institutions, of which 21 schools responded. The others denied CNN’s request for entrance exam or aptitude test scores, some saying the information did not exist and others citing privacy rules.

The CNN investigation found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level. The data obtained through open records requests also showed a staggering achievement gap between college athletes and their peers at the same institution.

The NCAA admits that almost 30 athletes in sports that make revenue for schools were accepted in 2012 with very low scores -- below 700 on the SAT composite (which, by the way, you get for spelling your name right), where the national average is 1000. That's a small percentage of about 5,700 revenue-sport athletes. However, the NCAA did not share raw data.

"Are there students coming to college underprepared? Sure. They are not just student-athletes," said Kevin Lennon, vice president of academic and membership affairs at the NCAA. But he said the NCAA sees it as the responsibility of universities to decide what level athlete should be admitted to their schools.

"Once the school admits them, the school should do everything it can to make sure the student succeeds," he said. "(Universities) don't want a national standard that says who they can recruit and admit. They want those decisions with the president, provost and athletic directors. That is the critical piece of all of this."

To be fair, not everyone believes college-athletes graduate without the requisite skills and the study that formed the basis for CNN’s athletes has come into question by at least one respected coach.

The study was done by Mary Willingham. As a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. She found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.

The issue was highlighted at UNC two years ago with the exposure of a scandal where students, many of them athletes, were given grades for classes they didn't attend, and where they did nothing more than turn in a single paper. Last month, a North Carolina grand jury indicted a professor at the center of the scandal on fraud charges. He's accused of being paid $12,000 for a class he didn't teach.

UNC Chapel Hill men’s basketball coach Roy Williams and other university officials strongly disputed Willingham’s findings that say more than half of the academically at-risk athletes admitted to the university cannot read or write at a college level. Williams told reporters the report was unfair and untrue with regard to Willingham’s claims that one basketball player was illiterate.

“I don’t believe that’s true,” Williams said. “It’s totally unfair. I’m really proud of the kids we’ve brought in here. I’m really proud of what our student-athletes have done. That’s not fair. I’ve been here 10 recruiting classes, I guess. We haven’t brought anybody in like that. We’ve had one senior since I’ve been here that did not graduate. Anybody can make any statement they want to make, but that is not fair.”

In this case before drawing any conclusions I have to consider the source of the information – Mary Willingham herself.

When Willingham worked as a learning specialist for athletes from 2003 to 2010, she admits she took part in cheating, signing her name to forms that said she witnessed no NCAA rules violations when in fact she did. But the NCAA never interviewed her. Instead, it found no rules had been broken at Chapel Hill.

But Willingham said fake classes were just a symptom of the bigger problem of enrolling good athletes who didn't have the reading skills to succeed at college. "Isn't it all cheating if I'm sitting at a table with a kid who can't read or write at college level and pulling a paper out of them? Is this really legitimate? No," Willingham told CNN. "I wouldn't do that today with a college student; I only did it with athletics, because it's necessary."

It seems to me Willingham follows the ‘situational ethics’ approach to ethical decision-making. In her view, ethics is relative to the situation at hand. Cheating to help college-athletes is OK while doing so for a college student violates ethical standards. This is a dangerous approach to ethical decision making because it allows each person to define his or her ethical standards. Instead, ethics should be based on well-established standards of behavior that apply to all in society including honesty and integrity, values violated by Willingham’s admitted actions.

Looking beyond Willingham and the UNC case, NCAA sports are big business, with millions of dollars at stake for winning programs. The NCAA oversees the behavior of institutions and puts schools on probation for gross violations of the code of conduct, such as recently happened to USC, Ohio State and Penn State. Why should it turn a blind eye at recruiting standards for athlete-scholars and graduation rates? If the NCAA can oversee the way in which college sports programs are organized and run, why not impose penalties on schools with a graduation rate below standards? Of course, the devil is in the details because a school can simply graduate a college-athlete without holding him to the same standards as other graduates.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 13, 2014


Since CNN's report, Willingham said she's gotten four death threats, and more than 30 other alarming messages. "Not people who disagree, people who put in the subject or body (of the e-mail) straight-up hate speech," she said. But there have also been notes of support from several other academic advisers around the country, Willingham says, and they make it worth the trouble. "I've been getting more and more nice notes from high school teachers and literacy specialists across the country saying 'Thank you.'"

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