Digging deep into the Knight, Part 2 - Academic Integrity

The watchdog of college sports, The Knight Commission, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a major study about how college presidents view the current state of intercollegiate athletics. I encourage you to read the report in its entirety as there is a mountain of interesting information, much of which will serve you very well as you discuss, support and defend athletics on your own campus.

This is the second of a multi-part series examining the just released study. As in part one of the series, I examine the current study using the recommendations in the Knight Commission's 1991-93 reports. These reports established four primary areas of importance in order to "reform" intercollegiate athletics, which was perceived as out of control in the early 1990's. The four primary areas were: Presidential Control (examined in part one of the series), Academic Integrity, Fiscal Integrity and Certification.

The Commission's second recommendation from its 1991-93 reports called for Academic Integrity: "No Pass, No Play".  Twenty years later, the academic health of college athletics, although still having significant room for improvement, has changed in meaningful ways and the goals of the commission have largely been achieved.  In 1989, the graduation rate among all student athletes was 58%, one percentage point better than the graduation rate of the student body in general (57%).  Division I men's basketball was at 44% and football's rate was 56%.  The 2008 rates showed that the student athlete rate had risen to 64%, compared to 62% for non-athlete students.   Men's basketball has moved to 49%, while football remained at 56%. This data reflects the changes in NCAA eligibility requirements that were adopted from the Commission's recommendations.

Since that time, under the leadership of NCAA President Myles Brand a new era of accountability not previously seen in college athletics arrived with the implementation of the Academic Progress Rating.  Since establishing the rating, athletic eligibility rates have continued to rise while transfer rates have decreased, including in the sports of football and basketball.  Although six year graduation rate data is not yet available, it would seem reasonable to expect further graduation rate improvements from improving eligibility and decreasing transfer rates.

Despite these improvements, the presidents who were surveyed do not believe all is well with respect to the educational experience of student athletes. The concerns center around two issues: the cultural impact of athletics on the institution and the effect of athletics on the educational experience of the individual student athlete. 

From a cultural perspective, the concerns reflect the "overemphasis" of athletics.  Stated one president: "There’s too much identification of a university with non-academic aspects, distracting from values of higher education and from desirable values in society."

Said another: "We’re in a situation right now in which the athletic association has more money and disposable money than it has ever had. On the academic side there is less flexibility at any time since World War II. This
creates very disparate cultures. Athletics can spend and do whatever it wants to do, and the academic core of the campus, which is operating under much greater constraints, sees that. The rationalization of those two cultures is one of the most difficult things we face."

What is interesting about these sentiments is that they are as much a reflection of the academy's cultural shift as they are a criticism of athletics.  Consider the first quote which cites "non-academic aspects".  While athletics is certainly a contributor to this shift, it is hardly the sole one.  The values of higher education are increasingly bottom-line oriented.  And as the resources for higher education become increasingly scare and tuition moves ever higher, non-academic concerns that focus on revenue generation, branding and marketing shape the academy in ways not previously seen.

For example, institutional marketing materials all tout academic quality supported by references to faculty/student ratios, departments that have won acclaim in a particular discipline and ratings in various publications of the best colleges and universities.  But the ability to make meaningful academic distinctions is blurred when comparing across literally thousands of colleges and universities, necessitating other marketing approaches. Institutions attract students by building lavish residence halls and recreation facilities while institutional traits such as diversity, religious affiliation, affordability, personal attention, and student life enhancing activities such as athletics are emphasized.  So while athletics certainly represents the most public aspect of this cultural shift in marketing and branding, it is hardly the only shift as institutions increasingly pursue prestige and compete for students and funding. 

Turning to the educational experience of student athletes, concerns from the initial Knight Commission report that focused on graduation rates and admission credentials no longer appear to be the presidential focus.  Instead, the presidents are concerned about academic engagement and educational experience.  Said one president, "My biggest concerns about the current pressures have more to do with the academic experience of athletes. I think we are, but I’m not sure that we’re doing right by our students. Pressure on athletes to use time for other things rather than academics is huge."

Another stated: "We’re drifting away from the intent of intercollegiate athletics, which is to give students a chance to compete in athletics in college and get a good education. We’re undermining the public’s confidence in the integrity of intercollegiate sports."

These concerns appear to have some basis.  In the 2009-10 academic year, college football started preseason practice in late July or very early August, in part to accommodate a 12th game (that was added 3 years ago).  College hockey played its first official games this year on October 8, and won't conclude the season until April 10, making the season at least a month longer than college basketball's season.  Meanwhile basketball's lengthy season is shaped by ratings friendly television scheduling and creative promotions such as ESPN's 24 hour tip off marathon on Tuesday November 17 that will have teams tipping off at 6 am, 8 am, 10 am and noon as well as 11 pm in their local time zones while other teams compete throughout the day.  The publicity and national exposure for some of the schools is significant.  But the season-long travel and non-traditional game times certainly have some academic impact on individual student athletes.

These types of changes didn't happen overnight.  They evolved as part of the explosion of televised sports along with other creeping, incremental changes, including: 1) attempts by each sport, using the NCAA governance structure, to "grow the sport"; 2) institutional and NCAA revenue generation; 3) accommodation for Olympic and World Championships; 4) attempts to improve training methods and 5) opportunities to enhance competitiveness, winning and professional opportunities. 

These changes coupled with financial opportunities and pressure to win demand increasing levels of athletic commitment by coaches in order to be successful.  The fear of being outworked, out coached, or not fully prepared is real.  Add in a transactional relationship between the coach and athlete where one-year renewable scholarships defray college tuition that has surpassed $50,000/year at nearly 60 institutions and the result is an environment where the student athlete's academic and non-academic activities are almost completely directed.  Colorado Football Coach Dan Hawkins's description of a letter he received from a parent provides a colorful example.  Hired to resurrect Colorado's football fortunes, Hawkins expectations as he looks to improve the program are for the student athlete to either buy into the vision or move on.

All the parties involved - coaches, parents, presidents and student athletes - understand the deal even though it has shortcomings.  It is a deal that everyone agrees to in the form of salary (coaches), institutional benefits such as exposure, branding and marketing power (presidents), competitive experience (student athletes) and paid tuition (parents).  And I suspect it's a deal many non-athlete students would make if it were offered and covered their skyrocketing tuition bill.  But the trade-off comes at a cost - a corresponding loss of freedom to experiment, grow and learn in the manner that occurs for most of the student body.  But with the expectation of proper off-field behavior from athletes and high levels of on-field performance demanded from coaches in all sports, a controlled educational experience is understandable. What's a coach to do?  What's a president to do?  What's a student athlete to do?  I suspect almost no one will choose intramurals.