Major college athletic programs are failing in their promise to deliver athletes a quality education and “routinely defraud athletes of the tremendous value” a college scholarship holds, a U.S. senator said in a new report issued Thursday morning.
“The lack of academic integrity across college sports may be the most insidious piece of a broken system,” Sen. Chris Murphy wrote in the report that challenges the NCAA over its measurement of graduation rates and its failure to graduate athletes at rates similar to those of other students.
Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, released a scathing report about the NCAA and major college athletics in March. That report called for paying college athletes ― especially those in sports like football and men’s basketball that help generate millions of dollars in revenue for universities and their athletic departments.
In the subsequent report released Thursday morning, Murphy targeted one of the most enduring myths of college athletics: that the college scholarship and supposed “free education” athletes receive in exchange for their labor means they are adequately compensated. In reality, Murphy’s report argues, the NCAA’s member schools are providing inadequate educational opportunities, and too few athletes are graduating with a quality degree ― or any degree at all.
“The NCAA’s primary response to my first report was that students are compensated, in their opinion. They believe that scholarship is adequate compensation for all of the time students put in and all the money they make for the system,” Murphy told HuffPost. “But there are a lot of students who are in the big time college programs where schools are treating them like commodities and not giving them the education that they deserve.”
“You’re obligated at these big kinds of college sport programs to be an athlete first, second and third, and a student fourth,” Murphy said. “It’s a bit of a red herring for the NCAA to say that a scholarship is enough compensation when a lot of these kids aren’t graduating and many others aren’t getting an education that is commensurate to their peers’.”
Murphy’s report cites a number of common criticisms of the education athletes receive, as well as high-profile academic fraud scandals like the one that rocked the University of North Carolina. But it takes particular aim at NCAA schools’ failure to graduate athletes, and targets the organization’s method of calculating athletes’ graduation rates, which the report calls “both incomplete and misleading.”
The NCAA has touted its success in graduating athletes ― and anyone who tunes in to even a few minutes of the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament is familiar with its commercials that claim most of its athletes “go pro in something other than sports.”
In recent years, the organization has celebrated its progress in increasing the percentage of students who graduate, which the NCAA measures with its own metric called the Graduation Success Rate. It developed that metric in 2002 in part to account for the high rate of athletes who transfer to different schools during their collegiate careers ― an issue the federal government’s statistics are ill-equipped to measure.
But the Graduation Success Rate, Murphy said, inflates schools’ success because it credits them when an athlete transfers in good academic standing — but sometimes fails to track them to their next school. From 2006 to 2009, Murphy said in the report, more than 23,000 athletes transferred while in good standing (and, as a result, were excluded from graduation rates). But the NCAA only accounted for the roughly 8,000 of those students who went on to enroll in different schools — so 15,000 individuals, the report states, “went missing,” meaning they dropped out or didn’t return as athletes and are thus unaccounted for.
“These athletes did not graduate, but the numbers account for them as if they did — painting an inflated picture of academic success,” the report says.
“The way that the federal government traditionally measures graduation rates, schools are held accountable for those who drop out,” Murphy said. “But [the NCAA] has rigged their own measure of graduation, so that if a kid potentially drops out of the program, nobody’s responsible for that kid. And that’s not measured in the dozens. As we showed in this report, there are thousands of kids who have dropped out of school who were playing sports, but weren’t counted when it comes to graduation rates.”
In his initial report, Murphy called the fight to fairly compensate college athletes a “civil rights issue” because the majority of athletes in major college men’s basketball and football are black. He views the academic situation similarly, he said, and his report argues that the system is especially failing black athletes.
The NCAA has said that its black athletes graduate at higher rates than black students overall, but the report cites other studies calling that into question. The graduation rate for black male athletes at schools in the NCAA’s five biggest conferences, the report says, is 5 percentage points lower than the rate for black male undergraduates overall. It is also 14 points lower than the rate for all athletes and 21 points lower than the rate for all college students.
Black male basketball and football players are even worse off: Their graduation rates are 22 points and 35 points lower, respectively, than those of the general student population, the report says, citing other studies.
“Black athletes are graduating at abysmal rates compared to their peers. And when you layer upon the graduation rate injustice, the fact that none of these kids are getting compensated, and all the largely white adults surrounding them are, it’s a civil rights issue,” Murphy said. “The NCAA says, ‘Don’t worry about the fact that all the adults are getting rich and the kids aren’t because the kids are getting an education. So it’s not a civil rights issue because we’re giving these kids, many of those African American athletes, an education.’
“Well, in many cases you aren’t ... giving these kids an education, which just exacerbates the civil rights issue.”
Even if they graduate, athletes often receive inadequate educations, the report argues, citing testimony from multiple former athletes. Athletes, the former players said, are sometimes forced into classes they don’t want to take and majors they don’t want to do, advisers often do their schoolwork for them, and their education often takes a backseat to their true purpose on campus: to play sports.
“The whole time ... I felt stuck — stuck in football, stuck in my major,” Stephen Cline, a former defensive lineman for Kansas State University, said in the report. Cline, according to the report, wanted to become a veterinarian but was pushed into a “less demanding major” so he could concentrate on football. “Now I look back and say, ‘Well what did I really go to college for?’ Crap classes you won’t use the rest of your life? I was majoring in football.”
The NCAA has faced numerous challenges to its “amateur” model in recent years, in the form of federal lawsuits, state legislative pushes, efforts to form new leagues, and ill-fated attempts to form labor unions for college athletes.
Those challenges have fostered the belief among many advocates that the NCAA is losing the battle to keep its exploitative system in place, and Murphy hopes his scrutiny of major college sports will bring more public attention to the current system’s shortcomings.
But while he will continue to scrutinize the NCAA, Murphy also said Thursday’s report puts more of a burden on major colleges and universities than the organization itself.
“The first report is about money, and schools can’t make the decisions by themselves to compensate kids. That’d be an NCAA decision,” Murphy said. “But every school can make the decision to get more serious about academics. Every school can look at the amount of time that their football athletes are spending on athletic activities versus school activities and shift that balance. I hope that this report, if it gets some attention, will cause some individual schools to take a look at their own policies.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the differences in graduation rates between groups of black male athletes at the NCAA’s five biggest conferences and other groups of students. The comparisons are now correctly given as percentage point differences (for example, 5 percentage points lower), not as percentage differences (5% lower).
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