A recent report from ESPN shone new light on the growing concern that college athletes were not receiving proper college education, instead skating by on “phony classes” that are meant only to boost the athlete’s grade point average. The University of North Carolina (UNC) had recently been caught giving these fake classes to their student-athletes as a means to keep them academically eligible and apologized for their actions in January. In ESPN’s report, ex-football player Deunta Williams and former academic advisor for athletes Mary Willingham showed how these classes, called “paper classes”, worked. Most telling in the report was a one-paragraph “essay” on Rosa Parks that a UNC student athlete turned in for their final paper for the course.
In the article, about Rosa Parks, the student athlete did not have a single sentence without an error. Spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure would not have passed any junior high school instructor, much less meeting the writing standards for a university class. With phrases like, “blacks had to give up there seats,” and “her and the bus driver,” there was little that would identify it as belonging to a writer at the collegiate level.
The paper, according to Willingham, received an “A” despite the brief nature of the final paper and the obvious grammatical issues. Willingham stated that the students are simply required to submit papers for these classes, regardless of their content or structure. She went on to say that they never receive less than a “B” on the papers, a blatant attempt to manipulate academic eligibility. This essay and the ESPN report has put UNC into even more hot water, showing the flaw in the college education that student-athletes receive.
Anyone who has attended college classes should not be surprised by these reports. College athletes have been put on a pedestal for decades, especially in colleges like UNC. Colleges where the athletic programs seem to be the first and foremost important topic of discussion on a daily basis. It has always been hinted that athletes that attend these types of colleges receive favoritism from the professors, either knowingly or unknowingly. After all, no one wants to be the person that prevented a star quarterback from playing in a championship game because their grades were not up to snuff. But the sheer disregard that the officials at UNC have shown for their student-athlete’s education is shocking, even in that context.
The essay reads like something one would find in third grade, not a final exam for a college level course. By allowing their athletes to pass courses by turning in assignments like the one above, it not only cheats the student-athletes out of an education they rightly deserve, but it also cheats the students that are not a part of the athletic programs. The UNC website has a location where one could find theses papers and dissertations located in the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library. It is unlikely that this athlete’s Rosa Parks essay would meet the standards set by the thousands of other papers located in that collection. Yet, in the end, the athlete received a similar grade as the students who turned in those other theses, if not a better one. That is fundamentally flawed.
UNC, and colleges around the country, need to take a serious look at the standards they are holding their student-athletes to. If athletes are allowed to turn in essays like the Rosa Parks one for a passing grade, the flaw in the education system for student-athletes has reached crisis level. A championship is certainly an important accomplishment for an athlete, especially at a college like UNC, but if it comes at the cost of knowing the difference between “their” and “there”, the cost is much too high.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner