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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : I ‘Disgraced’ the School by Calling a Star Athlete a Fake Student

<i> Barbara Bergmann, a professor of economics at American University, is president of the American Assn. of University Professors</i>

A faculty movement is taking shape that aims to radically change the nature of intercollegiate athletics. A group of professors in the Assn. of University Professors is trying to arouse a grass-roots movement to fight the cheating, fakery and financial pathology that are now the hallmarks of big-time athletic programs. Could we professors succeed where the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. and the college presidents have so far notoriously failed?

The NCAA is controlled by the directors of campus athletic programs; basic change is not to be expected from them. The university presidents are starting to show signs of backbone, but they have only nibbled at the problem. More than one college president has told me that if he did anything serious to reduce athletic expenses or to exclude athletes who are not real students, he’d be fired by his board of regents. There are plenty of university regents who take the fun that they get out of the university’s team more seriously than any other activity of the school.

Unlike university presidents, I and a majority of my faculty colleagues have the security of tenure and aren’t afraid of the regents. Even professors who are fans of their institution’s athletic teams have an emotional stake in the school’s academic integrity. Most faculty have bitterly resented the scandals and are fearful of more. Faculty are also starting to realize that even winning programs often incur big losses that have to be made up by the school from an already tight budget.

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For professors, the worst aspect of the current system is what I call the “fake-student problem.” Even athletes who have the ability and interest to make it as real students are often forced by their schedule of practice, conditioning and travel to pretend to be students. For the fake students, fake courses and fake majors are provided. If graduation rates continue to be an issue, fake graduations will surely be arranged.

A number of years ago, at the University of Maryland, I learned first-hand how fake students can take and pass even real courses. Three of my students handed in answers to an essay exam that were almost word-for-word identical, so I accused them of cheating. The three turned out to be a star football player, his wife and another member of the team who shared their apartment. The two men involved had not been to a single meeting of my class, but the wife had attended faithfully, to judge by the exam.

The word was passed to me that if I didn’t withdraw the accusations, I would be accused of misconduct. The athletics department arranged for the sports section of our local newspaper, the Washington Post, to run an admiring feature story about the personal life of the football star. I particularly enjoyed the part of the article that described how well he and his wife worked together on their studies.

Finally, the case came before a hearing panel of students and administrators, and the panel declared all three students innocent. The threatened accusation against me never materialized, but the chair of my department called me in and told me I had disgraced the department by bringing charges. Having tenure, I could afford to take the matter lightly, but a beginning teacher would not have had that luxury.

While the scandals that the fake-student problem causes are getting the most attention, faculty are getting concerned about the financial problems that athletics cause as well. In a time of budget crunch, schools are still spending millions to build sports facilities and make up deficits in athletic budgets. In many of these schools, the faculty lack offices to see students, sections of courses are overcrowded and students are shut out of required classes because money is lacking to hire the needed teachers. Faculty are getting the news that there is no financial silver lining to the athletic scandals--that athletic programs never, ever, make financial contributions to the academic side of the budget.

An interesting test case will be the reaction of the UC Berkeley faculty to the initiatives of their chancellor--a backer of big-time athletics. A panel on athletics that he appointed argues the school cannot be complete without winning football and basketball teams. As Neil Smelser, a sociologist who chaired the panel, said, “We decided to go the upbeat route.” If UC Berkeley follows the panel’s advice, the faculty will find that the fake-student problem and the financial problems will provide a downbeat to go with the upbeat.

The program that the AAUP is advocating includes published athletic budgets, and oversight of the athletics department and athletes’ programs by elected faculty committees. It also proposes that athletes be admitted and awarded scholarships on the same basis as other students. The result of such a reform would be teams that cost less, are less expert and less fun to watch, but that would consist of real students, for whom the sport would be a sideline to their studies.


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