Congressional Briefing – 9/30/2015
It was an honor to be called to Washington DC this week to speak about my experiences with the NCAA and College Sport. Below are my comments.
Thank you for inviting me today. I am honored to be here and very grateful to Representatives Dent, Beatty, Katko and Rush for their work on the NCAA Accountability Act.
What the National Collegiate Athletic Association – NCAA – claims is not necessarily based on fact, particularly in the revenue sports of men’s football and basketball. (From this point I will refer to the revenue sports as the profit sports–this is the more honest term.) I was privileged to work with the athletes from both of these teams as well as 26 other teams at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC) for seven years inside the athletic department. UNC is one of our oldest and finest public institutions of higher learning. I have told of my experiences of academic fraud and have been met with resistance every step of the way. At first, and for many years, my bosses, administrators and the NCAA ignored me. I confronted hate mail, death threats and even a provost’s public denunciation, but my stories have been verified and corroborated by several investigations including one by a well know DC attorney, Kenneth Wainstein[i] – and from the thousands of emails that I have received from colleagues all across the country.
Today, I would like to share with you a few examples from my own experiences of how the NCAA and its member institutions have failed in their promises to our college athletes. The young athletes with whom I worked, mostly men and mostly African American, were entrusted to my care as a learning and reading specialist – an educator to ensure that their academic experiences were real – and I too failed them. Along with my co-author Jay Smith, we have chronicled the UNC story in our recent book[ii], but more importantly we’ve told why we are all being “cheated” by the current college sport system. I will just point out a few of the more glaring hypocrisies of the NCAA system.
- The NCAA claims that its mission is to provide a world-class education and experience to the student athletes. [iii]
Scholarship athletes in football and basketball are unlike the general student population, as their demanding sport schedules prohibit the opportunity to hold a part-time job, participate in internships, attend classes in the late afternoon or early evening, go on spring break, leave for winter break, study abroad or be student-teachers. Not only do they invest 40-50 hours per week to their sports, but they are separated from the student body by the way that they dress (in gear), the classes that they take, mandatory summer school enrollment, and separate facilities they use for studying and tutoring. At UNC-CH, this system reminds me of segregation. Separate, but not equal. The profit-sport athletes spend at least twice as much time in their sport than they do in class or studying. By contrast, non-athletes spend, on average, 20 hours per week studying and 15 hours per week in class. That leaves time for part-time work, internships, clubs and leisure. They are not required to travel with any of these activities. What this all means is that the “world class” opportunities given to profit-sport athletes (football and basketball), as well as athletes in some other sports, are severely limited. They do not have access to all 78 majors at UNC-CH. Three-quarters of UNC’s football and basketball players cluster in two or three majors. Their educational experience always takes a back seat to their sport.
For instance, at the institution where I worked, in the case of the football team which competed in a bowl game in December of 2013[iv]:
- 17 regular players had an overall cumulative grade point average of 2.3[v]
- They accumulated 10 semesters of academic probation (below a 2.0)
- Together they had 29 F’s and 53 D’s on their unofficial transcripts
- Together they took a total of 48 drama classes even though not a single athlete among them majors in drama; this happens because scholarship athletes in the profit sports are funneled to all of the easiest classes available.
The NCAA and its member institutions knowingly but with a willful blindness deny a subset of college athletes of the world-class educations they promise.
- The NCAA claims that their eligibility standards are intended to maximize graduation rates while minimizing disparate effects on economically disadvantaged groups. [vi]
DI football and basketball players are graduating below the 50% and even those who do graduate are not necessarily using their ‘major’ to go ‘pro’ in something other than sport —they receive what I refer to as a BS in eligibility. In part this is because entrance standards are so low and so subject to manipulation that, in some cases, athletes who struggle to read are admitted to school simply because of their athletic talent. And we all look away from the educational consequences of this outrageous practice–one that clearly has a disparate effect on black male students. In our book “Cheated”, we say that race is the third rail of university politics – even on college campuses we avoid discussing sensitive topics and pretend not to notice that a great big whale is swimming just below the surface – institutionalized racism. The culture at large sends black students mixed messages. Black males represent only 2.8% of undergrads on all our US college campuses, but black students represent 57.1% of college football teams and 64.3% of college basketball teams[vii]. We are suggesting to black male children and their families that their best ticket to college is through sports. The NCAA takes advantage of these appalling statistics to claim that it offers “opportunity” that otherwise would not exist. An opportunity for what exactly? – I was never sure. Many of the athletes I worked with told me what they wanted to study. One football player was artistically gifted and wanted to teach art and another wanted to coach middle school football back in his hometown. Their athletic schedules, their need for intensive academic support, the prohibitive costs of an art major, and the high GPA requirements of the School of Education did not allow for either of these pursuits. Another athlete wanted to study non-profits (real non profit organizations) and someday build a YMCA in one of NC’s poorest counties but the business school gpa requirements were out of reach. Another aspired to be a school counselor so that he could intervene when, as had been his experience, a 5th grade teacher tells a young child that he will never learn to read or write. This was also impossible because of his busy basketball schedule.[viii] Instead, all these players majored in AFAM, where paper classes made their lives easier but gave them little of real educational value.
- The NCAA claims that it is committed to enforcing the rules…..It’s the responsibility of our universities, athletic programs, coaches, alumni, student- athletes, and national office staff to be fully accountable at every level as we support student success.[ix]
The NCAA is notorious for being inconsistent and arbitrary in its policing of academic fraud, which is more rampant than ever[x]. If the NCAA cared at all about academics, for starters, they would enforce their own 20-hour practice rule[xi]. It’s really a con game and we all know the truth – how did the NCAA look away from the UNC academic fraud case? I spoke up publically in the fall of 2012, but I never heard from the NCAA until they opened their 2nd investigation. They did not want to know the truth; they certainly didn’t want the truth exposed. They have since decided to call our paper class system an impermissible benefit. Who exactly was benefiting? The athlete? Why have they transferred the vocabulary used to describe violations of amateurism rules over to the realm of academic fraud? It’s because the NCAA can’t face the reality that its system is predicated on fraud. If we are ever to fulfill our promises to college athletes, it will take an independent commission to overhaul the practices of the current collegiate model of sports.
[i] Weinstein Report. http://carolinacommitment.unc.edu/reports-resources/
[ii] Jay M. Smith and Mary Willingham, Cheated: The UNC Scandal, The Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big time College Sports (Lincoln, Neb.: 2015)
[iii] President letter 2013 (Mark Emmert to the NCAA ) http:www.ncaa.org/president
[iv] Willingham O’Bannon Case Declaration
[v] Average UNC student body GPA is 3.2 https://www.chegg.com/schools/north-carolina-university-chapel-hill
[vi] http: www.ncaa.org
[vii] Shaun R. Harper, Collin D. Williams Jr., and Horatio W. Blackman, “Black Male Student Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sport,” Penn GSE. Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education (2013) https://www.gse.upenn.edu/equity/sites/gse.upenn.edu.equity/files/publications/Harper_Williams_and_Blackman_%282013%29.pdf
[viii] Willingham O’Bannon Case Declaration
[xi] 2013-14 NCAA Division I Manuel