Phony classes hamstring college athletes’ careers off the field

College athletes need to pay attention to their academic life. Aspen Photo / Shutterstock.com

The fanfare over the 2015 National Football League (NFL) Draft in Chicago can trick one into believing that playing college sports is a ticket to a professional career and a multimillion dollar payday.

But we know it isn’t.

The reality is that few college football players will be drafted and the overwhelming majority of student athletes will need to go into careers other than professional sports.

To ensure a career other than professional sports, student athletes need to take responsibility for their academic lives.

An ongoing case at the University of North Carolina (UNC) - Chapel Hill, in which student athletes are suing the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the university in a class action lawsuit illustrates how things can go wrong when student athletes do not pay attention to their own education.

Based on our experience, we believe student athletes need to play a more proactive role. One of us (Kimberly S Miloch) competed as a student athlete and subsequently worked with the United States Tennis Association (USTA). The other author (Michelle Buggs), mentored college students at all levels for more than ten years and has extensive experience in both student and academic affairs.

Few student athletes get lucrative jobs

Data illustrate that professional sport careers are unlikely for football players and the vast majority of college athletes. Fewer than four percent of football players will go on to play professionally.

The NCAA estimates that of the 71,000 athletes who currently play college football, only 15,842 are eligible for 256 draft spots this weekend.

Of these, fewer than two percent will secure a contract with an NFL League team.

Some of those not drafted by the NFL may be able to pursue positions with teams in the Canadian Football League (CFL) or the Arena League (AFL) but even considering these leagues, fewer than four percent will play professionally.

This pattern holds true for the majority of college athletes in all sports. Only about one percent will be playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), almost nine percent in Major League Baseball, just under seven percent in the National Hockey League (NHL) and just over one percent in Major League Soccer (MLS).

Despite these numbers, many student athletes do not pay attention to their academic lives. Often, they rely too heavily on the NCAA or coaches and administrators to chart their academic path.

Academic dishonesty

And this lapse, in part, is what led to the situation and the systemic cheating at UNC.

The “courses” that these student athletes took included independent studies in which they wrote papers assigned and graded by non-faculty staff with no expertise on the topic.

The staff member assigned As and high Bs and later enrolled athletes in lecture courses managed like independent studies. The courses were not taught by faculty nor did the athletes attend lectures. No instruction was provided in these courses.

College athletes should make sure that courses are being taught by faculty members. Track image via www.shutterstock.com

UNC has claimed not to have been aware of the situation. And the NCAA has refused to take responsibility for monitoring the quality of academics at an institution.

This is in contrast to the NCAA mission and core values and what has been stated previously in legal proceedings, and various official publications.

While we agree that the NCAA and its member institutions should take responsibility for the quality of athletes’ education, we also believe student athletes should be proactive and work in tandem with their university and the NCAA to ensure a meaningful education.

Students confused about rules

In its role of overseeing college athletics, the NCAA has rules to support athletes’ academic life. Athletic departments across the country provide athlete support services and consistently monitor compliance with all NCAA rules and regulations.

Examples of such support include athletic department advisors for student athletes, formalized tutoring services, mandatory study halls and departmental monitoring of athlete attendance and grades.

College degree plans are increasingly refined and progress toward degree is regularly reported to the NCAA.

These rules can be confusing, as we know through experience. Having been athletes in high school and college and now academic administrators, we remember numerous conversations with teammates and other athletes trying to understand NCAA rules.

Each fall we would have a session with athletic administrators who briefed us on expectations for compliance and standards of conduct. These sessions were confusing. And this was well before the digital age and social media.

We understand that many student athletes may not be fully aware of the NCAA rules or even pay attention them. This is because they do not fully realize the value of their education.

However, we want to emphasize the importance of student athletes remaining vigilant in order to prevent cases like the UNC incident from happening again. Student athletes must ensure that lecture courses do indeed include lectures and are taught by qualified faculty or expert instructors.

Additionally, athletes should understand that formal instruction should be provided with any course, including independent studies. When this is not the case, athletes should address it with an academic advisor or an administrator, such as a dean of students.

Pay attention to academic life

Incidents of academic fraud in college athletics are not new. College-athletes cannot rely on the NCAA or their respective institution to be a watchdog. In past instances, breaches in academic integrity have occurred when athletes have submitted assignments written by someone else or when other individuals have taken tests on behalf of athletes.

The outcome of the UNC case could have far reaching impact and could lead to significant reforms, particularly at Football Bowl Subdivision institutions.. The NCAA is on the hook, too, but not more than the athletes who are accountable to themselves.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities emphasizes personal and social responsibility as a core commitment of higher education.

Athletes should actively pursue internships, faculty-mentoring and career shadowing opportunities as they are precursors to career readiness.

Student athletes should realize their integrity and education is at stake when they allow such situations like the UNC scandal to occur. They must work together and hold one another accountable for earning a meaningful education.

If student athletes don’t want to warm the bench in the game of life, they must pursue their academic career with as much intensity as they pursue a conference or national championship, and they should do so in tandem with their institution and the NCAA.