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Skewed priorities in lenient academic policies for athletes

8 mins read

The University of North Carolina has found itself in hot water after the not-that-shocking revelation that the university has a policy of leniency toward its student-athletes during the grading process. This is nothing new or surprising — it’s one of those controversial topics that hits the public in waves every time a particularly egregious essay finds itself on the Internet, before promptly dying back down again. It’s a disheartening trend to me simply because I feel that the issue warrants more attention than just trending controversy for a week or two.

When something becomes a bandwagon topic, the public doesn’t indulge in very many in-depth discussions past the most foundational issues. And the people benefiting from the negative action don’t attempt any actual change because they know they can just wait out the controversy. The disparity between athletics and academics should be seen as more complicated and more important than just “jocks are dumb, and so are college professors.”

The particular UNC letter that sparked the current debate was a single-spaced, one-paragraph spiel on Rosa Parks that earned a passing grade. Though I question the authenticity of the paper itself, the idea it gets across rings true and obviously so. Athletes seem to magically get good grades no matter what their academic work ethic is, and that’s not just a problem found in universities. That much is clear. The questions to be asked here are “Why is that?” and “What are the consequences?”

We live in a society that values certain traits and abilities above others. Certain things are considered marketable and lucrative while others are not. College-level athletic coaches get paid more than medical doctors in most states, and high schools are more likely to pour funding into a new football stadium as opposed to up-to-date computers for their labs.

Priorities are skewed, and it’s not entirely the fault of college athletes and their negligent professors, even though they’re contributing to it. People pay for football tickets more than tickets to their kids’ orchestra performance. The quarterback is more popular than the valedictorian. There’s no Olympic Games for all the academics around the world, and if there were, it’d be hard pressed to actually find an audience. It’s unfair to put the blame fully on dumb jocks and corrupt teachers when they both live in a society that values physical prowess over intellectual ability in most instances.

I don’t want to discredit athletes. That last paragraph may make me come across as someone who sees no value in athletic ability at all, but that is not the case. Athletics are difficult and utterly time consuming, and they require a level of endurance and hand-eye coordination that I can only dream of having. A dedicated athlete is probably no less committed than a dedicated academic, and there’s no rule saying that those are mutually exclusive or that one is inherently better than the other.

Being good at basketball — at least to me — is just as impressive as being good at painting, or ballet, or chemistry. I’d rather a young person be deeply interested in the sport of their choosing than not be interested in anything of substance at all. The problem arises, though, when you put that into context along with everything else. In context, we are in a society that overvalues that particular ability to the detriment of others. It’s a society that defunds art and music classes and then goes on to score relatively low on academic readiness exams. It’s a society that often presents art and academia as something only attainable to rich private school kids or the rare poor public school genius who has what it takes to “get out,” leaving sports the only viable option for the more average ones. It’s a society that says it doesn’t matter that your reading level is two years below what it should be as long as you can prove your value to us some other way — that ignorance isn’t something to fight against, but something to ignore and make up for in other areas.

Valuing athletics to such a disproportionate degree does nothing to help anyone. Yes, sports bring in the money, but social capital clearly wasn’t on the minds of any administrator favoring unqualified athletes. It makes professors compromise their own academic integrity, and delegitimizes higher education in general. A degree doesn’t matter when it demands only the bare minimum from you, and it discredits all the other students who actually earned it — especially the athletes who managed to be good at sports and still write a literate essay.

Not only does it perpetuate the “dumb jock” stereotype, it actively encourages it by telling young athletes that good things are just going to be handed to them because they’re entitled to have them based solely on athletic merit. Athletes go to college to get an education, and that’s not what they’re receiving based on this “secret” policy bent on filling up stadiums and nothing else.

It gets worse once you realize that the same universities tend to stop caring about their much-favored athletes if they find themselves unable to play the game anymore, whether through injury or any other circumstance. That probably hangs a lot of people out to dry when they spent all their time and made most of their connections by doing one thing they can’t do anymore. You’d think that being treated like a pretty yet disposable pawn to the detriment of one’s peers, teachers, and personal integrity would make people more uncomfortable. But I’m not going to hold my breath for any “Confessions of a College QB” pieces in the NYTimes.

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