Winning the Game, But Not Able to Read The Play Book

Can you imagine, getting accepted to college as a student-athlete, maybe you’re the first in your family; and then being a handed a four-year life plan without anyone asking for your option? For many NCAA DI student-athletes this is a reality.  “School” consists of no class, no lectures, and no finals. Their school schedules are outlined before they set foot on campus, and are expected to follow the “plan” in order to stay in school and succeed in their college athletic career.

Unfortunately, many of these pre-picked classes contain no academic rigor.  Mary Willingham, a University of North Carolina (UNC) learning specialist, points out that most of the classes taken by athletes are considered  “historically passable” or no-show classes. They are easy to get a passing grade in and help boost the students GPA in order to keep them playing their sport. This seems, at least in the most recent new buzz, to be an especially popular academic plan for football and men’s basketball student-athletes.

An athlete taking easy courses and majors, however, this isn’t a new concept in the world of college athletics. The stereotype of the “dumb” athlete has been perpetuated through mass media, movies, and high schools across the nation for decades. The difference now is that there are expectations for athletes to meet specific academic requirements in order to play college ball. These expectations are not only set by the NCAA, but supposedly enforced by them as well.

But what if I told you that 10% of college student-athletes were “functionally illiterate?” In a court statement, Willingham describes the research and says that in addition to this student population, out of the 182 students screened another 60% were between a fourth-to-eighth grade reading level. That’s 70% that does not come even close to meeting college academic standards!

How could the system let these students get so far without help? Is the Football Lobby, so large and so powerful that it makes playing a game more important than an education? We talked about in class how the football lobby continues to be a driving force in gender inequality in American sport; as well as how they have labeled themselves as “the” revenue generating sport for most athletic departments. Even with contradicting data, there is still a push for football programs to have the largest budget and athlete population. However, what if by creating this empire, football is also hurting their own players? As seen from the previous statistics the population of student-athletes actually meeting college-level academic standards, or even taking the appropriate class is quite low. Athletic departments are able to push them in school because of their talent, even when some technically don’t have the academic ability to even start college level school work, because they are so far behind. In sum, what the football lobby has done is create an avenue for “great” athletes to play in an academic athletic league without the necessary requirements. Unfortunately, by creating this loophole, these athletes will not be prepared for the next step. After college, they will know how to play football, but if they don’t go straight into the NFL, they won’t have the necessary skills or academic knowledge to work in jobs appropriate for earning a bachelor’s degrees.

Mike McAdoo, a former UNC football player, has come out about this issue. He says that on the first day of his freshman year  he was told his major, African American Studies, and the language he would be studying, Swahili. He said for many of his classes, he didn’t even need to show up. They were called “independent study” courses, and he was only expected to write a 20-page paper, due at the end of the term. For the paper, McAdoo was able to pull from websites and books as long as the sources were cited.  Unfortunately, he was kicked off the football team because he had done improper work on the paper he turned in for a no-show class. The “improper work” turned out to be that he received help from a tutor on citing the information he took from the online and books that he used to write his papers. What is even more shocking was that his class was supposedly a no-show intermediate Swahili course… How does that even work?!

According to several sources, it is not uncommon for many of UNC football players major in African American Studies and take Swahili as their language requirement. McAdoo was told by his counselor to  pick classes that he didn’t have to spend much time thinking about. But in the end it didn’t matter, his counselor ended up picking the classes that he knew the athletes could pass would any problems. One of the biggest issues with this situation, is that many athletes decide to go to college to continue their athletic career to get an education, before going into the major leagues. However, if word spreads and athletes continue to not receive that education, what is stopping them from jumping into professional sports right out of high school? And if they do, what does this mean for the future of college athletics?


NewsDay, HBO Real Sport.

Jordan Weissmann.

Dan Kane

Messner, Michael A. 2002. Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports. 1st ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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