Freshmen in Arts & Sciences at Cornell in the 1960s were required to take a science course. I took chemistry, but should have taken geology. Chemistry was way too challenging for someone who came to Ithaca to study political science. Geology, I was told, was a course designed for athletes. It was known colloquially as "Rocks for Jocks."
Every college has course offerings that require a minimum of time and effort and present little risk of failure. Athletic advisors know how to use these courses to construct a student's course of study that will allow football and basketball players to achieve the grade point averages they need under NCAA rules to maintain their eligibility. No one is taking chemistry, especially if that course requires quantitative analysis. The NCAA knows that this is the way of college life for many of those young men who play in the revenue sports of football and basketball.
No one should be surprised to discover that some colleges - even those with splendid academic reputations - have stretched the boundaries and created "fake" courses. The news from Chapel Hill about the courses at University of North Carolina that never met and required a paper that could be plagiarized or ghost-written is just the latest example. It continues a long-standing practice across a broad spectrum of colleges with important intercollegiate athletic programs.
The details of the scandal at UNC have been widely reported, and they raise fundamental questions about NCAA oversight and the enforceability of academic rules. At one time, the NCAA relied upon a system of "home rule," under which colleges would police their own institutions. This open invitation to cheat was replaced by a growing collection of NCAA regulations without adequate enforcement measures. Some schools escaped scrutiny simply because it was impossible for the Association to watch everyone all the time.
The enforcement of the NCAA rules depends upon either self-enforcement by the offending institutions or reporting to the NCAA by sources at rival schools. If the proscribed academic practices in question were truly evil, causing grievous injury to the athletes, then the NCAA member schools should have made sure the Association had adequate financial resources to enforce their regulations. College athletics today certain has the money, but it does not have the will. Otherwise, how can you explain UNC's fifteen-year history of phantom courses?
The problem with courses analogous to "Rocks for Jocks" at UNC is that the practice is a way the university could field athletic teams that appeared to meet NCAA academic regulations. For many young men who had aspirations in professional sports, pursuing academics at the same time they played football or basketball was another hurdle too difficult to jump. Pursuing an academic degree had nothing at all to do with pursuing a career in the NFL or the NBA.
Post-secondary education is absolutely critical in today's job market, except if you are among the few elite athletes who can succeed, at least in the short run, without a bachelor's degree. In the long run, of course, that education is essential and compensating college athletes with the opportunity to complete college after they complete their athletic careers is fitting and proper. No one has explained why the two pursuits - athletics and academics - must be accomplished at the same time. The time demands of big-time college athletics today makes it impossible for many, perhaps most, students to do both simultaneously.
The UNC scandal will lead to serious NCAA sanctions, as will the next scandal and the one after that. What it should lead to, however, is a fundamental rethinking of how the NCAA regulates college sports. As the NCAA swats away one successful challenge to its hegemony after another, it plays defense when it should redirect its efforts to offense. When Walter Byers, the long-time Executive Director of the NCAA, developed the marketing concept of the "student-athlete" to distinguish college athletics from its professional counterparts, he was not speaking any essential truth. Many sports - tennis, golf, hockey and others - do not tie themselves to academic requirements. So too could college football and basketball.
Many must feel frustrated by the NCAA's academic regulations while being appalled by the transgressions of wonderful academic institutions like UNC. We can free college athletics from unenforceable rules only by digging deeper into the bedrock of the regulatory scheme. We abolished Prohibition after that "noble experiment" failed. We are gradually doing the same with marijuana. Might we also think about reforming the NCAA?