Adventures in Ethics and Science

I’m pretty sure the National Collegiate Athletic Association doesn’t want college athletes — or the athletics programs supporting them — to cheat their way through college. However, this article at Inside Higher Ed raises the question of whether some kind of cheating isn’t the best strategy to give the NCAA what it’s asking for.

From the article:

[M]any agree that the climate has changed in college athletics in ways that may make such misbehavior more likely. And it has happened since the NCAA unveiled its latest set of academic policies that raised the stakes on colleges to show that their athletes perform well in the classroom while simultaneously lowering the requirements freshman athletes must meet to become eligible initially.

Largely as a response to sagging graduation rates for football and basketball players, the NCAA put into place several years ago new academic rules that require colleges to report each term whether their athletes are on progress toward a degree — with penalties awaiting those whose students aren’t progressing and aren’t performing.

At the same time, the NCAA reversed its previous approach of continually raising initial entrance requirements and began allowing students with SAT scores as low as 400 (or a corresponding ACT score) to enroll so long as their high school grades were high enough. That move appeased critics of the standardized test score requirement who said it adversely affected minority students.

In the years since the changes, many have expressed concern that the combination of heightened academic expectations and lowered entrance regulations would put the campus employees responsible for providing academic support to athletes in a tough spot, asked to help a growing number of marginal students — potentially at all costs.

First off, a quick question: are those combined “SAT scores as low as 400″? Back in the ’90s, when I was working as an SAT tutor, to get a 200 on the SAT math or verbal you essentially had to answer every question incorrectly — theoretically, you got a higher score for leaving them all blank. Has that changed?

If not … yikes.

But on to the central issue. The NCAA says colleges and universities have a responsibility to ensure that their student athletes make progress toward their college degrees. On its face, this is a good thing — student athletes ought to get their college educations, just like their classmates who happen not to be athletes.

Meanwhile, the NCAA lowers the standardized test scores (but not high school grades) required of students entering college athletics programs. Maybe because of my time as an SAT tutor, I don’t regard the SAT as an instrument that delivers utterly reliable information about a student’s academic potential or intelligence. (SAT scores do seem to reflect a student’s familiarity with the test format and the best strategies for tackling the different sections, which is why test preparation can make a difference in those scores.)

Still, the SAT scores might provide some rough way to calibrate what an “A” or a “B” in one high school amounts to compared to the same grades in another high school. And a combined SAT score of 400 suggests something worrisome — maybe lack of preparation for foreseeable hurdles on the way to college, maybe a lack of focus on academics, maybe even serious test anxiety. Any of these could be a problem down the road for the high school athlete trying to become a college athlete.

Indeed, the colleges and universities identify the lowering of the entrance requirements for student athletes has led to “a growing number of marginal students”. But maybe the NCAA lowered the entrance requirements with the hope that good colleges and universities could teach these marginal students, helping them to develop the academic skills and capacities they need to rise from the margins to the middle (or better) of the academic pack.

That would be pretty cool. But it’s not clear that it would be a likely outcome unless sufficient academic resources were directed at this project. You’d want instructors with a good grasp of how to make remediation work, support for the student athletes in developing effective study skills (and writing skills, and information literacy skills, etc.), and enough time for the student athletes to be able to assimilate and master all of this.

Except that the nature of collegiate athletics seems to be that most of your hours go to the team — to practices, training sessions, road games scheduled during midterms or finals. An excellent student would find such demands on his or her time challenging (as I know from my experience with students who were excellent students and student athletes). For a marginal student, the number of hours in the week just aren’t sufficient to meet the time demands of being an athlete and those of becoming anything but a struggling student.

And here, I can’t help but think that collegiate athletics programs slip into viewing student athletes as mere means rather than as ends in themselves.

The athletics program’s goal is to produce winning teams. One of the constraints on that goal is that they must also demonstrate that the students on those teams are making satisfactory progress toward their degrees. This would not be such a problem if the athletics program also took student athletes’ academic progress as a worthy goal in itself — one that might even trump the goal of having a winning team. Because surely, taking the student athletes’ education seriously would make certain strategies for meeting NCAA requirements (like helping the students cheat or funneling them all to Mickey Mouse courses that they will pass even if they never attend or do any of the coursework) absolutely out of bounds.

And even if those running the athletics program recognize that there are lines they ought not to cross (like cheating on coursework for students) in managing their student athletes, it seems that they may be conveying the message to those student athletes that their primary responsibility is to be athletes, and the student-stuff is a necessary extra burden that comes with being an athlete in the collegiate context. An athletics director quoted in the article describes the message the students may be getting like this:

“For many programs, the recruiting pitch is, ‘We have a great academic support system and everyone graduates,’ ” [East Carolina athletics director Terry] Holland said. “Maybe what the athletes are hearing is, ‘You’re going to do the work for me. It may not be fraud, but I won’t have to do as much.’ ”

Folks in athletics are good at working out strategies. If you give them a set of rules for scoring, they’ll work out what they need to do with what they have to score.

If the most realistic way to “score” as far as meeting NCAA regulations involves diluting the quality of the education student athletes receive, it should be no surprise that some athletic programs will decide on that strategy. If the NCAA is really committed to ensuring that collegiate athletes get the full benefits of a college education, perhaps there’s good reason to look at how the regulations on the books are really affecting how the game is played on the ground.


  1. #1 S. Rivlin
    October 3, 2007


    Much of what you have said is absolutely true. However, there is no college or university in Division I athletics that will replace its winning football coach and the athleletics director (both of whom are earning much more money than the university president) just because their athletes’ graduation rate is 50%. Conversely, both, the coach and the AD, will be fired if the football team has a loosing record three years in a row even if 100% of their athletes have graduated.

  2. #2 Joshua Zelinsky
    October 3, 2007

    The current SAT has three sections, each of which has a minimum possible score of 200. I don’t know where you got the 400 number since it doesn’t appear to be in any of the articles you linked. According to there are separate minimal scores for both the math and the writing each slightly over 400. The third section which had been added recently (it essentially the old SAT-II Writing) does not factor in.

  3. #3 Joshua Zelinsky
    October 3, 2007

    Sorry, the 400 number seems to be in this USAToday article- . Apparently the 400 number was true in 2002. The only way I see of reconciling the official website and the USAToday article is that the number was 400 in 2002 and has creeped up slightly since then. Also, according to this link a 400 on each puts one slightly below 15th percentile.

  4. #4 JP Stormcrow
    October 4, 2007

    This is in line with my point in bringing up the Tennessee story in the previous thread. To some degree those 2 at Florida State were probably pretty much doing what they were hired to do. In that case it pushes the ethical breach out to just taking the job (or continuing in it, once you have figured out its essence.) So a shameful thing, but I personally would only support making those two quit if the president of the university resigns as well.

    Face it (and I’m a college football fan … but all of this does give me pause), it is an inherently corrupt system. Maybe the big Div I teams should be just pulled off to the side and be “associated” with the university. But somehow the illusion of student-athletes (and don’t get me wrong, some legitimately are) is all part of the bundle for the fans/alumni etc.

    I guess one question is how corrupting is this to the actual academic mission of the university? I am sure it is just this moral calculus that every big-time sport University president engages in.** Maybe not so much. In the light of all that the specific minor changes by the NCAA have a re-arranging the deck chairs feel to it – although the specific direction in this instance does have a “No Child Left Behind” feel to it. “You must raise the results, while we undermine your ability to do so.”

    **And in less extreme forms this hits every college or university that engages in intercollegiate sports – it just gets grossly magnified and distorted at Semi-Pro U.

  5. #5 S. Rivlin
    October 4, 2007

    College sports is just a mirror of the disaster we call education in America. While we all admiring our American College Gladiators, giving them scholarships with no real education, our universities are filled with foreign students who then take their education to their home countries. We only need to look at the typical college football or basketball team, the majority of which is manned with African-Americans and then compare it to the undergraduate and graduate academic population in American colleges, enriched with many Chinese students. I’m still waiting to see a Chinese RB or WR or QB on any college football team in America. When will we celebrate a fair representation of African-Americans in graduate schools?

  6. #6 Drugmonkey
    October 4, 2007

    Lemme see here, we take a college experience which is a bit peripheral to the putative Mission (i.e., teaching undergraduates) but still a generally agreed GoodThing. It then starts going a little nuts because of competition and the desire to be the “best”, still ok because after all excellence honed by competitive pressure is a generally agreed GoodThing. Then it emerges that this somewhat peripheral aspect of the college experience can be lucrative by bringing in outside dollars, initiating a cycle of increased pressure to succeed to bring in the external dollars. Donors are tapped to build infrastructure, corruption starts slipping in, the faculty who are not involved in the profit-making enterprise get jealous. The Mission starts being ever so slightly compromised but the admin vigorously asserts that the external dollars, fame and prestige make it all worth it.

    …remind me again, were we talking research science or college athletics???