How athletes end up with easy majors and in fake classes


Rashad McCants’ accusations about his academic career at North Carolina were not surprising to those who have followed the scandal over the last two years or take a cynical view of college athletics. This is despite the protests of his teammates, some of whom might have taken the same easy or fake classes and enrolled in the same African-American studies program that has been scrutinized.

But how does this happen? How do athletes end up in these types of classes? Lots of theories get thrown out there, but the answer starts before an athlete even arrives on campus.

One popular target is the Academic Progress Rate, or APR. Raising the stakes of having an ineligible player to include postseason bans, scholarship reductions and lost practice time has put additional pressure on coaches to keep athletes eligible at all costs. But clustering of athletes in certain majors and certain classes and with certain professors did not start in the last decade. The APR might be an aggravating factor, but it is not the root cause.

Another common explanation is the NCAA’s eligibility rules. By requiring an across-the-board, uniform march toward graduation, the NCAA’s academic requirements prevent athletes from trying, failing, and taking a longer path in a more difficult but ultimately more valuable major.

Even in the absence of NCAA rules, there would still be standards. Unless college athletes are not required to be students at all, the alternative to NCAA requirements would be to require athletes to be full-time students in good standing with the university. At North Carolina, that means meeting four requirements each semester:

– Maintain at least a 2.000 GPA.

– Pass at least nine hours each semester.

– Complete a certain number of total hours after each semester.

– Pass two-thirds of all attempted hours.

All of these requirements are higher than the NCAA's. The NCAA does not require a 2.000 GPA for most athletes until the start of the senior year. The NCAA only requires that athletes pass six hours each semester. In fact, UNC’s cumulative credit hour requirements are higher than the NCAA’s at most checks — for example, 51 hours required at the start of the junior year compared to the NCAA’s requirement of 48 for most standard, 120 credit-hour majors. And the NCAA has no requirement that athletes pass a certain portion of the courses in which they enroll.

UNC also does not give students many chances if they cannot remain in good academic standing. A student who fails to earn nine hours in a semester is ruled ineligible. A student who does not meet any of the other requirements is ruled “Eligible — On Probation.” Students ruled ineligible or who are on probation but fail to return to good standing can apply for another semester of probation. At most, it is a three-strikes-and-you’re-out system.

Unless UNC blatantly ignores these standards and allows athletes to continue to enroll at the school despite not being in good standing, this puts significant pressure on coaches and athletes to stay not just NCAA-eligible but also UNC-eligible. Remove the NCAA requirements and athletes who are not prepared for the rigors of their major will still need to find a way to stay enrolled at the university.

Preparation is the key. If a single culprit is to be identified, it is the NCAA’s initial eligibility standards. But the trouble is deciding what to do with them. The obvious answer, at least to the NCAA, is to raise them. In the past, that effort resulted in so many people claiming that access to college would be denied to so many athletes — particularly poor and minority athletes — that the changes were rolled back.

The less intuitive answer is to eliminate initial eligibility standards. While initial eligibility requirements are not intended to be admissions standards, that is how they are used. Many schools will admit any scholarship athlete who is an NCAA qualifier. Eliminating this floor would force schools to come up with their own admissions policies rather than defaulting to the NCAA’s.

Yet there is a twofold problem with this idea. First, if the proponents of eliminating eligibility requirements are wrong, they will doom at least a few years if not a generation of athletes to, at best, the same situation we have today: unprepared athletes arriving on campus and being passed through easy classes clustered in flexible or accommodating majors. At worst, we’ll see even fewer prepared athletes, unable to stay in school long enough to need to declare one of these majors.

Second is that history is not on the side of eliminating or reducing eligibility requirements. Take this passage from a 1994 Sports Illustrated article about Proposition 16, the successor to Prop 48:

Eight years later we have a clearer picture of Prop 48’s impact. The Rand Corporation, hired in October by the Knight Commission to study the reams of data compiled by the NCAA regarding graduation rates among student-athletes, determined among other things that after an initial two-year decline in the percentage of athletic scholarships awarded to blacks following Prop 48’s enactment, the numbers soon rebounded to, and eventually exceeded, former levels. In the 1992–93 academic year, 25.6% of scholarship athletes in Division I were black, compared with 24% in ’85. Blacks who did not meet Prop 48 requirements were being replaced by blacks who did.

The number of black student-athletes who graduated within five years of enrollment rose from 30% to 40%. Likewise, under Prop 48, the percentage of white players who earned degrees increased from 54% to 60%, and the number of women graduates, regardless of race, jumped from 56% to 69%. Graduation rates of all scholarship athletes now approximate those of the student body as a whole. Prop 48 is a success.

What types of majors athletes were graduating in was not studied but I doubt that prior to Prop 48, the bulk of those very low graduation rates were in what we might call “difficult” majors like the hard sciences, engineering, or the more specialized humanities. There were still plenty of athletes who were enrolled in each school’s “eligibility” major, with sociology, psychology, criminal justice and sports management being common destinations.

The NCAA and college athletics do not and cannot guarantee an education. All they can offer is the opportunity to get an education. The quantity and quality of opportunities show where the balance can be struck. Raise standards so high that every athlete is almost assured of graduating in their chosen field, and college athletics would only be providing access to higher education to students who likely already had it. Eliminate or drastically lower standards so that any athlete can enroll, and they run the risk of offering something many athletes cannot realistically take advantage of.

As tortured as the North Carolina case is for the NCAA, the larger issue seems even more intractable. It’s been debated in earnest for close to 30 years now, with roots stretching back much further. All that debate has produced more athletes with degrees, but little progress in ensuring that athletes are getting the same quality of education — or at least the same quality of opportunity — as their non-athlete peers.

John Infante, who writes for the Bylaw Blog, is a Sporting News contributor. Follow him on Twitter: @John_Infante and @bylawblog.