Passing the ball, and the buck

Schools do their athletes an extreme disservice by refusing to address issues of illiteracy and reading debilities

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill researcher Mary Willingham’s work has been suspended after she revealed her findings that roughly 10 percent of the UNC athletes she studied are “functionally illiterate.” University administrators have justified their decision to suspend Willingham’s work by claiming that she violated federal rules by not keeping her research subjects anonymous. Willingham has countered that she must maintain a record of the subjects’ identities because her work entails studying them over a long period of time. She has never publicized the names of her subjects.

CNN conducted its own analysis on athletes from 21 schools with Division I teams. They found that at most schools, between 7 and 18 percent of athletes playing revenue sports (basketball and football) read at elementary school levels.

Officials at UNC discredit Willingham’s research and claim that her methods were faulty, but the study conducted by CNN seems to support her findings — 60 percent of Willingham’s study sample exhibited a reading level between 4th and 8th grade. Regardless of the alleged methodological concerns, to dismiss such significant findings is a way for UNC to avoid addressing the issue of athletes’ academic competence. This is not the first time that UNC has faced public scrutiny for a corrupt athletic system. In 2010, it was revealed during an NCAA investigation that football players received “improper academic help” and impermissible monetary compensations.

All of this evidence points to a larger cultural issue: higher education’s sacrifice of academic standards for the sake of revenue sports. But these athletes did not become illiterate or become limited in their reading ability when they got to college. The problems must have begun long before then.

H. G. Bissinger’s 1990 non-fiction book, “Friday Night Lights,” chronicles one season of high school football in Odessa, Texas. Most are familiar with the title for the television series that was made based on the book. But the written product is essentially a long piece of journalism. It follows a few players closely throughout their senior year of high school. Some do just fine, or even excel academically, but some take classes three years behind the level of most members of their age groups. They are coddled with easy classes, just as college athletes are. Higher education’s relationship with athletics is only an extension of what often begins in many public high schools where the pressure on athletes is just as strong, and the pressure on their academics just as weak.

College athletics is looking more and more like an independent industry, especially with the prominent debate on whether student athletes should be paid. Willingham’s findings seem to indicate that there may even already be distinct standards for essentially hiring a football player or a basketball player. The students with the best athletic skills are chosen, with a de-emphasis or even disregard for their studious qualifications.

Sports like football and basketball can serve as college recruitment mechanisms even for non-athletes, who consider factors like school spirit and rank of sports teams when deciding where to apply. And while a good football team or good basketball team may increase the number of applications a university receives, the potential benefits of overall athletic prestige carry universities down a slippery slope, at the end of which they forget what their primary purpose is: to educate.

James W. Dean Jr., provost of UNC, said that Willingham’s findings are “grossly unfair” to the reputation of the university’s athletes. But the true injustice here is the treatment of college athletes who have never learned the skills that they need to succeed academically, having been subjected to athletic pressure for a good majority of their lives. Willingham said in an interview with CNN that they have limited or no resources to help them with their learning debilities at college — they are expected to succeed in classes with no extra assistance for those who may not have attained the level of literacy that their peers possess. Athletes are often forced to take easy classes with very little work, or to cheat.

One article in our three-part series on Honor last semester highlighted that students report athletes for honor offense at disproportionately high rates compared to other groups at the University. Though there is no way to know whether athletes are unfairly reported or if they are actually more likely to cheat, we can potentially make a connection between these statistical findings and Willingham’s remarks on how college athletes often are faced with situations in which their options are limited.

Universities and high schools needs to start taking responsibility, remembering that they are institutions of education first and institutions of athletics second. Students athletes should not be denied a high quality education for the sake of an institution’s athletic reputation. The refusal to address research like Willingham’s only continues such exploitation. This is a pattern of abuse that cannot continue.

Published January 29, 2014 in Opinion

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