The NCAA & Academic Standards; Time to Recover The Fumble

November 7, 2015


By Alexandra Del Vecchio – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) is an organization that prides itself on encouraging academic success for its student athletes. Based on the strictly outlined academic requirements for its members, you might even be tempted to say the NCAA requires it. However as of late, it seems the organization may be fumbling.

Recent Academic Issues

The NCAA infractions committee recently determined that the men’s basketball program at Southern Methodist University (SMU), a Division I school, has committed multiple violations of the organizations rules. In a September 29th decision the committee found that the program had committed academic fraud, as well as unethical conduct and head coach control violations related to the fraud. As a result of these violations an array of penalties were imposed: probations, fines, a post-season ban, the vacation of past wins, a head coach suspension, scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions.

Exactly what occurred? The team’s former assistant coach encouraged a student to enroll in an online course in order to meet the NCAA’s initial eligibility standards, permitting him to play for the team. Notably, the issue here is rooted in eligibility. Once the student enrolled, an administrative assistant completed their course work, facilitating receipt of fraudulent academic credit. When he became aware of these events, the team’s head coach didn’t report them as possible rule violations. Those involved also lied to NCAA enforcement staff when asked about the possible violation and encouraged the student to do the same.

Reading the stern decision and assortment of penalties it may seem that this is an isolated incident, properly reprimanded by the NCAA and not a real problem in college athletics. But browse just a few months back into the sports news archives and that perception may change. Just this past summer following an investigation the NCAA issued a series of significant allegations regarding violations of academic standards at the University of North Carolina (UNC). While that matter is still far from its conclusion, it certainly gives the impression that SMU is not alone in its plight.

NCAA Stance on Academic Standards & Requirements

And here is where the apparent fumble lies – the NCAA’s public stances on academic standards for their student-athletes seem to put them on opposite sides of the field, so to speak. On the one side we see an organization proud of its student-athletes, purportedly pushing for their academic success. Yet on the other side, we see an organization that takes a very hands-off approach to ensuring it.

The NCAA stresses and lauds the ‘student’ status of their student-athletes. The organization professes that academic success and achievement is equally important to athletic success, going so far as to call education a top priority, commitment and responsibility. Coupled with this position are the NCAA’s various academic requirements and standards. These standards vary between divisions, but they are thoroughly documented across the board and we see occasional non-compliance reprimands, like that of SMU.

Furthermore, in recent publications and media reports related to the O’Bannon litigation – which sought compensation for student-athletes via US antitrust law – the education afforded to NCAA athletes has been touted as a form of compensation. That is to say, the ‘top-priority’ education is said to serve as the organization’s means of remuneration for the student-athletes’ revenue generating athletic performances and related goods.

In contrast to all of this, the NCAA also seems to take the stance that ensuring education is not their responsibility. This is subtly suggested through its publications, which emphasize the role of the student-athletes’ schools in meeting the organization’s academic standards and requirements. More clearly, this has been articulated by the NCAA in response to legal allegations made against the organization, stemming from violations of academic standards at UNC. The organization’s position with respect to that litigation has been widely reported as a clear assertion that the NCAA is in no way responsible for the quality of education that its student-athletes receive, even where complaints over quality arise from enrolment in faux-classes.

These opposing viewpoints create quite the dichotomy. It seems the NCAA views the education of its student-athletes with high regard, so valuable that it serves as sufficient compensation for their revenue generating ‘work’ even. Yet despite all its other enforcement and compliance roles, the organization simultaneously refuses to take responsibility for ensuring their student-athletes receive quality education or ‘compensation’, as it’s framed in some discussions.

Perhaps it’s time for the NCAA to recover their fumble, take one for the team & truly stand up for their athletes’ education.

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