University football game Photo by Daniel Hartwig

Football scandals have, for better or worse, become part of the new normal on large college campuses: sexual abuse at Penn State, brain damage at Michigan, and cheating at UNC.

In response, the University of Maryland has tried to combat a bad image in two ways: first, by offering “lifetime scholarships” to its student athletes, rather than limiting the life of the scholarship to academic participation; and second, by linking the bonuses paid to coaches and athletic directors to the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR).

The first measure is laudable in all ways. By offering students a path to success apart from sports, the university is attempting to fulfill the ideal of the student-athlete. As many have pointed out, it’s very difficult for collegiate athletes (especially in major sports like football and basketball) to participate in their sport as well as academically. The general rule for classroom/homework ratios is two hours of work for every hour of class; this translates into 9 academic hours per week per three-credit class. Full enrollment in most universities is 3-4 courses per semester; thus purely academic work ought to require 27-36 hours a week out of 112 waking hours (assuming 8 hours of sleep, which should be required for athletes to perform at peak levels). Add in 4 hours per day of athletic practice (28 hours), and you have 48 hours left for all other activities: eating, showering, and socializing. Possible, but not ideal.

Assuming that an athlete is injured, s/he loses his scholarship money, and possibly will not be able to continue at that institution or to transfer elsewhere. The years spent in school are then lost opportunity: no degree, no work experience. Allowing a student-athlete to continue on full scholarship for as long as it takes to complete the degree allows all students to reap the benefit of post-secondary education in return for their service to the school’s fundraising and entertainment efforts.

But Maryland’s second policy seems a bit short-sighted, although it has earned the backing of DOE Secretary Arne Duncan. It’s trying to increase student-athlete academic achievement by forcing coaches to pay attention to students’ intellectual as well as physical growth. If money weren’t involved, it might even work. But by linking future coach benefits to the APR, they are fostering an environment — however unwittingly — in which schemes such as the UNC “paper classes” will flourish.

To understand why, you need to understand how the APR works. It’s a simple — one might even say simplistic — measure of degree progress. Each student who is eligible for aid and on an athletic team gets one point for staying in school; s/he receives another point for being “eligible”, which is making progress to graduation. This point ratio is then divided by all possible points and multiplied by 1000 to give a score that looks much like an SAT score. If schools fail to reach a score of 900, they are subject to sanctions, including losing Division 1 status for the entire athletics department.

These severe penalties encourage athletics departments to cover up student academic deficiencies, as seen most recently at Chapel Hill. In UNC’s case, well-meaning faculty and staff ‘helped’ students by enrolling them into classes with no professorial contact, limited academic work, and individualized standards — to the point where the student received the grade s/he needed to maintain academic status. Maryland’s new policy will add individual incentives: not only will coaches keep the NCAA out of their locker room, but they stand to benefit financially.

While actions like the UNC “paper classes” may have helped students in the short-term, in the long term it was most likely detrimental. College athletics don’t pay. While many students may believe that varsity sports are a ticket to a professional career, not all collegiate athletes make it to the pros. And those that do may not find professional sports remunerative. Because college athletes in the US are disproportionately black, lack of real standards ends up harming an academically vulnerable part of the population. Indeed, this report highlights that even some of the programs that are best at graduating students, such as BC and Stanford, end up with only ⅔ of their athletes receiving a diploma.

Some of this, true, may be by choice. Some athletes do drop out to pursue other opportunities, and they should not be penalized for that. But neither should they be penalized for trying to succeed in two worlds at once: the world in which they receive a scholarship, and that in which they have a future.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.