Hiding Elite Athletes: How Academic Departments Can Be Complicit in Undermining Academic Integrity
Mark Naison, Chair, African and African American Studies
Whenever athletic scandals erupt at major universities, whether it be the University of Tennessee, Florida State University, or SUNY Binghampton, several conditions are usually present
First, the University administration makes a major financial commitment to achieve national success in sports and declares this to be an institutional priority
Second, the University agrees to admit students whose academic profile is far below the University norm if they will help teams in high profile sports win.
Third, the University puts pressure on its Academic Advising Staff to use any and all means to make sure that high profile athletes are eligible to compete, including having assignments written, or tests taken, by surrogates.
Fourth, the University identifies institutions which offer correspondence courses or on line courses which athletes may take to receive college credits, and approves those credits without investigating whether the courses are legitimate or the athletes are the ones actually doing the work
Fifth, the University identifies Departments and individual faculty members who support the University’s sports initiative and are willing to allow elite athletes to get course credits without meeting the normal attendance criteria or submitting the work normally required in the courses they offer.
As a faculty member and a Department chair, it is the fifth of these conditions that I find most disturbing. Wherever academically unprepared and, at times, functionally illiterate athletes, are admitted to Universities and receive high enough grades to maintain their eligibility, some members of the faculty are giving athletes grades they don’t earn, or offering them tutorials and independent studies which allow them to circumvent normal academic requirements.
At SUNY Binghampton, the Department that served that purpose was the Department of Human Development, chaired by a person who also was a faculty member in Africana Studies.
Which brings us to college athletics dirty little SECRET- that the vast majority of academically unprepared athletes being brought into elite programs are African Americans, and that the rationale for their admission is often phrased in terms of a mission of social uplift, namely, giving young people from underprivileged backgrounds a chance to get a college education
It is on such grounds that faculty members in African American Studies and Africana Studies are often approached by University administrators to help academically marginal athletes remain in school. And the appeal is often seductive, especially at schools where the number of African American male students who are not athletes are extremely small.
However, at Fordham, such an appeal will not work
The faculty of the Department of African and African American Studies is, to a person, opposed to admitting academically unprepared student athletes or for watering down our courses to allow them to remain eligible. All of our courses have heavily workloads which we categorically refuse to modify to accommodate elite athletes. If the Athletic Department or Athletic Advising Office wishes to find a place where basketball players can “catch a break,” African American Studies at Fordham is the last place they should look
It is possible that Fordham can arrive at the best of all possible outcomes- achieving respectability in Men’s Basketball without watering down our academic standards or sacrificing academic integrity.
But we as faculty cannot just stand by and allow the academic progress of athletes to be an issue determined by other parties.
It is the Faculty’s responsibility, both individually and collectively, to make sure that if we do achieve basketball success at Fordham, we do it the right way.
Our vigilance is Fordham’s best defense against the kind of scandal that befell one of the nation’s best public universities- SUNY Binghamton.
March 1, 2010