For the past 18 years, thousands of students at the prestigious University of North Carolina took fake, "paper classes," according to an independent report issued last week. Advisors funneled student athletes into programs to keep them eligible. The report estimates that more than 3,100 students took these classes.
Gerald Gurney, president of the Watchdog Drake Group said, " ... the scope of the 20 year UNC fraud scandal easily takes the prize for the largest and most nefarious scandal in the history of NCAA enforcement. The depth and breadth of the scheme -- involving counselors, coaches, academic administrators, faculty and athletic administrators eclipses any previous case."
The goal at UNC was to insure that these athletes were eligible academically to play for the school. The scandal highlights a nationwide collegiate sports emphasis, which ends up hurting the student athletes and the institution alike. Instead of counseling athletes to take classes designed to help them graduate with a major that will help them find career employment, a class schedule is cobbled together haphazardly to minimally satisfy NCAA grade point and unit standards.
The graduation rates of athletes who have been in athletic programs in football or basketball for six years are shockingly low. Keep in mind that only 1 percent of the collegiate athletes in these sports will ever play in the pros. Of those lucky enough to make it in pro sports, many play only a few years and face second career quickly. So, they end up at the end of their campus life with no degree, or with a degree that has no functional major or specialization -- prospects in the job market will be slim.
A recent report on HBO's Real SportsHBO's Real Sports showed athletes from the University of Oklahoma who had graduated and were employed at somewhat menial blue collar jobs. The classes that made up their degrees prepared them for nothing with a professional bent.
My own alma mater, UC Berkeley, showed a graduation rate for the football team in 2010 at 44 percent. That failure was so stunning that reform steps were quickly taken. UNC and the University of California are academic institutions. So, what is the duty of an academic institution to student-athletes? There is a need to recognize that these athletes have burdens given their year-round training regimen, heavy practice and play schedule in season that few other students face. They clearly deserve help in tutoring and some consideration for the semester that their sport is played in. But if the goal is only to keep them eligible to play with no consideration as to the quality of the major or degree their class schedule leads to--they are being deprived of the actual benefit of a college degree.
If athletic programs are unwilling to do the counseling and tutoring that helps a student athlete achieve a real functional major and graduate, there is an alternative. A university and the NCAA could abandon the facade of student athletics and simply hire young athletes to play for the university. A better system would allow young athletes with no academic interest to try and make it in the pros when their skill set allows. This would be done without attending college, or forcing colleges to give student athletes class schedules leading to unproductive majors and ineffective degrees.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.