Tuesday, February 15, 2005

 

Well at least we're doing something

The Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics is a well-meaning group. It is made up of faculty at 47 institutions that participate in NCAA sports. However, it is not made up of any university presidents. The faculty senates of universities represented in the Coalition are now considering a document entitled, Academic Integrity in Intercollegiate Athletics: Principles, Rules, and Best Practices. Below are my comments about selections from the Executive Summary of the document:

Because the rationale for merit scholarships based on athletic, rather than academic qualifications is not strong, the Coalition recommends that a reassessment be made of the feasibility of converting athletics scholarships to a need basis.

What could be stronger that the rationale that this guy can run fast (or other athletic qualification)? If sports are about performance on the field then nothing could be more rational than choosing folks who have athletic skills. What the Coalition can’t seem to bring itself to say is that there is little rationale for universities spending millions of dollars every year putting on sports exhibitions.

The campus faculty bears primary responsibility for ensuring that academic programs conform to high standards of integrity in curriculum and student evaluation. Reports of differential academic treatment of athletes by faculty have persisted for years and occasionally been confirmed, but without detailed data on athlete enrollment patterns and grades, faculty governance bodies have no way of routinely assessing the integrity of campus programs in this regard or remediating problems that may exist. The Coalition therefore proposes that campuses collect data on the academic performance of athletes by course section, and convey that information to their campus faculty governance bodies, protecting the anonymity of individual student records. [NCAA bylaw proposal, Section 3.1] .

What a colossal waste of time this would be. Collecting this sort of data would surely show that athletes have a hard time competing with their colleagues not spending much time and energy playing games. But how would it be able to recognize any inappropriate treatment of “student”-athletes? No criteria are offered. None can be imagined.

Because coaches have great leverage to guide their athletes to place academics first, the Coalition recommends performance assessments of coaches and close monitoring that creates incentives for coaches to use that leverage constructively.

Of course they have the leverage but why, oh why, would a coach use this leverage to put academics first? We already have performance assessments of coaches: the win-loss record. Until this plays no part in the future employment opportunities of coaches they are not likely to care much about the academic achievement of their minions.

The competition scheduling decisions that campuses make directly affect the challenges athletes face in the classroom. The Coalition recommends that Faculty Athletics Representatives and campus athletics boards be meaningfully involved in the design of season schedules to ensure that academic priorities guide planning.

Meaningfully involved? Short of actually having the final say, there will be no meaningful involvement of faculty. Can anyone really imagine that academic priorities drive anything in athletic departments? Those who do must not have ever taught at a university. Last semester I had a softball student in one of my classes. She came to me mid-semester to ask how she might improve her pitiful grade. She explained to me that she was taking 18 hours in the fall because she had been coerced (counseled is clearly not the right word) by her academic advisors to do so. She was told to take 18 hours in the fall because softball is a spring sport. “Meaningfully involved” means nothing short of being in charge. It means getting rid of anyone so cruel as to assign students 18 hour semesters simply because it might benefit the win-loss record of the softball team (read: softball coach). A few years ago I taught a student who recounted her experiences dealing with academics on the softball team. She was told that she should consider another major because geology classes required too many field trips. Student Athletes? BUUUUUUUULoney! Until coaches have no say in who gets scholarships it will be worse than doing nothing to claim that faculty have meaningful involvement in the design of schedules that ensure academic priorities. Until coaches are judged by GPA and not winning percentage, none of this will matter.

The success of athlete advising is critical for the academic integrity of campus sports programs. Faculty have a responsibility to understand the role of the OAAA, and to be assured that the office is structured to operate with integrity.

Well sure, if integrity could be found in campus sports programs, it would be nice to start with advising. But I fear my experience with softball players is not unique. However, to be assured that such offices operate with integrity is akin to being told the check is in mail. Integrity is coming to the faculty senate and detailing how last years efforts comport with last years predictions or promises. Integrity is not coming to the faculty senate and declaring victory in the absence of any predictions or well-described mileposts. Integrity is not arguing that since things could have been worse (or indeed that they have been worse in the past) that things are ok. The better-than-a-sharp-stick-in-the-eye defense is not integrity. I understand the role of the OAAA too well.

Here’s another idea. Simply require everything done at a university, including the athletics program, to be subjected to this question: Does this make the institution a better place to teach or learn? If it doesn’t, stop it. Now it may be that answering this question will be complicated but avoiding the question is not the way to make the problem go away.
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