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Balls and Baubles Part II: Education, Yeah...

Friday, May 02, 2014
By Brelan Hillman


Education of "Student-Athletes": Cognitive Dissonance in the NCAA

This is Part II of a two-part part series addressing the injustices of college athletics.  Check out Part I to learn about the skewed economics and lack of fair pay in the college sports. 

In psychology, "cognitive dissonance" refers to the feeling of discomfort caused by an individual holding conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. The NCAA and revenue generating collegiate sports (e.g. Division I men’s basketball and football) currently are suffering a collective cognitive dissonance stemming from debates about amateurism, compensation, and education. 

While the distress has already led to some changes, there remains a stadium sized room for improvement and therapeutic rehabilitation. The NCAA and its participating schools should strongly consider tailoring the education of athletes to the competitors’ specific interests, rather than continuing to force a round peg in a square hole.

The harsh truth of college sports and its relationship with higher education is that many athletes are admitted to colleges and universities that they would be rejected from if they were not as athletically gifted. And the "education" provided, often does not serve the players upon graduation. 

Some grew up in environments that systemically fail to prepare students for the academic rigors of higher education. Others’ intense dedication to attaining their athletic dreams supplanted their devotion to scholastic endeavors. Regardless of their background, only a small percentage of these athletes will ultimately make a career out of their athletic talents. Moreover, the players who do eventually earn a living on the playing field have a relatively small window to earn and compete in professional sports in comparison to a doctor, lawyer, or businessman. This reality makes the lack of commitment dedicated to the education of college athletes especially troubling. The NCAA’s insistence on referring to them as student athletes for its own protection rather than the melioration of the players is all the more problematic.

While coaches sell recruits and their families on the opportunity to receive a free education, the idiom “you get what you pay for” often comes to mind when considering the education many athletes actually receive. Although they are considered “student-athletes,” the system heavily prioritizes athletics above academics. Players are only supposed to dedicate twenty hours per week to their sport, but many spend over forty per week working on their craft. If they spent an equal amount of time with academics, they’d barely have any time to do anything other than sleep. College athletes are essentially working full time jobs along with their academic responsibilities. 

Furthermore, schools seem more concerned with meeting the bare minimum requirements for eligibility and pushing them along rather than providing them with intellectual, moral, and social instruction. This results in the herding of athletes towards classes and majors that, in the long term, offer them little more than a passing grade and a diploma to hang on a wall. Some classes never meet and only require a final essay that can easily be copied from a treasure trove of former players’ papers. Tutors, who theoretically are a resource for athletes in need of remedial help, often end up either doing the work for the “student-athletes” or convincing professors to show lenience towards players. It should come as no surprise that the education and diploma that many athletes receive often do not yield professional opportunities outside of the playing field.

Opponents of substantive change, like NCAA president Mark Emmert, insist that athletes should be thankful for their opportunity to receive a free education and disregard their market value and the profits that are generated off their backs. They espouse false narratives that athletes are taking the spots of "real" students. Bob Ryan, a renowned American sportswriter, pointed out on ESPN’s Around the Horn that this apparent problem is a creation of the NCAA. Schools used to have unlimited scholarships until the NCAA placed limits. To view the acceptances of athletes versus other students as a zero sum game is preposterous.

The academic failures and scandals of college athletics reach to the highest levels. Last year the NCAA deemed the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball team ineligible for the postseason due to their substandard academic performance. Just a year later, the Huskies are back on top of the college basketball world as champions although their graduation rates were far below the rest of the sixty-eight teams vying for the championship. Additionally, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been rocked by an academic scandal, where football and basketball players were disproportionately represented in classes that never met. If the alleged corruption is true (as the mountain of evidence suggests), then one of the nation’s most respected public universities sacrificed its integrity and the futures of its athletes to maintain its status as an athletic powerhouse. It is naïve to think that UNC is the only institution more concerned with eligibility than education when it comes to its revenue generating athletes.

Creating The Education That Athletes Deserve  

Recognizing and lamenting the problems with the current system can only take us so far. Radical and innovative adjustments are needed remedy these issues. The following proposals would dramatically improve the current relationship between college athletics and academics:

Schools should provide realistic remedial programs and incorporate them in a manner that does not shame the athletes that need them. The institutions acknowledge that many athletes are admitted based on their “special talent” rather than academic performance. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect these students, on their own, to adapt to the academic standards designed for students that were admitted due to their intellectual performance. Athletes need support in the academic arena, not only on the field.

Schools should establish optional curriculums that cater to the interests, betterment, and future careers of its athletes. Few players will make it into the pros, but would be perfectly suited to a career in sports with proper educational training. Athletic leadership and professional sports focused academic programs would yield more coaches, scouts, referees, executives, agents, marketers and other sports-related professionals out of the talent pool of former athletes. Their lifetime immersion in athletics would make those not prepared for a traditional higher education far more receptive to reading, writing, critical analysis, and technical tutelage through these avenues compared to the typical punts -  “Rocks for Jocks” or independent study. Nonetheless, if the athletes aspire to attain a traditional education, then the appropriate infrastructure should be established to maximize their success in the classroom.

The NBA, NFL, and their labor unions must work closely with schools to create internship programs that would provide course credits and future professional opportunities off the playing field. NCAA division I football and basketball programs have acted as free labor farm systems, and it’s time for the benefactors of this exploitation to return the favor. While red tape and complacency with the existing system may make transformation an arduous prospect, it remains a necessary step. In the long run, continuing to treat players as athletic chattel, unworthy of an education, will cost universities and their athletes dearly.  

Further Reading & Listening Enjoyment


Dinich, Heather. "NCAA Penalties Extend to 10 FSU Sports." ESPN.
Winderhorst, Brian. "Adam Silver: Age Limit Top Priority." ESPN.

Interested in learning more about NCAA graduation rates? Check out this database to research schools, conferences, and sports.

Brelan Hillman is Green Rainbow Revolution's rap star Social Media, Blog, and Tech intern. He graduated with a degree in US History from Duke University, while also dabbling in African American studies. This athlete advocate and hip-hop enthusiast has entrepreneurial and legal professional aspirations and is hoping to eventually fuse his interests and ambitions.

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