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Favoring the jocks (just don’t get caught)

By Will Barber

Those of us who have been in academe for a while are quite familiar with the favoritism afforded to university athletes, especially football players.

Early in my teaching career at a major Texas university I began receiving telephone calls at the end of the semester from coaches asking for favors to help their athletes remain eligible to play. After I turned them down a couple of times, they quit calling.

I remember relaying these conversations on to my department head. He said, “Don’t worry about it – you’ll probably be receiving more phone calls. They are looking for professors who will cooperate.”

Twenty-five years later, after retiring from university teaching, it happened again. This time the athletic department and faculty members had become a little more sophisticated, and in one particular case had help from the registrar.

I had received a phone call from a large state university in North Carolina asking me to teach part-time. I accepted the position as an adjunct professor, teaching three popular courses to mostly juniors and seniors.

Most of my students were working while at the same time carrying a full load of courses. They were struggling to balance grades and pay for school. They received no special favors.

At the end of the semester I received the usual grade sheets from the registrar’s office. As I entered the final grades I noticed there were two students on one course sheet whose names were not familiar. I looked at my roll book and their names did not appear. They had never attended class.

I asked my department head for an explanation.

Department head: “Oh, that’s OK, Dr. Barber. These are students who are taking your course as an independent study.”

Me: “What? Wait a minute. They never attended the class. How can they receive credit for a class they never attended?”

Department head: “Oh, they were assigned a paper for their independent study. You can read it if you like.”

Me: “I can’t enter a grade for these students. They never attended class. Besides, a final paper does not equate to a student receiving credit for a course they never attended. There was no instruction at all, only a flimsy paper. That’s not quite ethical!”

Department head: “Oh, don’t worry, we can take care of that. I will assign a final grade.”

I left his office steaming mad. It seemed, after talking to the department head, that it was standard practice.

Later in the day a couple of students dropped by my office to wish me a relaxing vacation. A copy of my roll sheet was on my desk. I asked them if they had ever heard of these two students.

“You don’t recognize those names Dr. Barber? They’re both football players. That’s funny; we never saw them in class. Wish we had.”

When I delivered my grade sheets to the registrar’s office the next day, I asked about the two mystery entries on my class roll. How did they get there? I told the registrar they had never attended class. They hadn’t dropped the course – if they had, they wouldn’t be on my final grade sheet.

Registrar: “Oh, don’t worry about that Dr. Barber. That happens sometimes when people can’t attend a class regularly. We do this a lot for our athletes who have to stay eligible.”

Me [raising my voice a couple of octaves]: “This is making no sense!”

Registrar: “You must be a new faculty member, Dr. Barber!”

I left the registrar’s office wondering how many no-show courses were being offered by faculty members at this university – courses where no instruction was offered and the only requirement was to submit a paper at the end of the semester.

So many people were involved: faculty, department heads, athletic departments and in my case, the registrar’s office.

I was not asked to return the next year. And I never found out what grades were entered for the athletes who appeared on my roll sheets, but I can guess.

I still think about the hundreds of students who have been enrolled in my courses over the past 25 years. They graduated without any special favors; nobody was writing their papers for them and none bolted from school to receive million-dollar salaries. They worked very hard to get an education.

The blame in all of this, including the recent scandal in the athletic department at UNC, lies not with the athletes but with faculty members, department heads and athletic departments willing to cheat the system in order to keep athletes academically eligible to play.

As one coach told me at a party once: “Athletic departments, and that includes even high schools, will do anything to keep their players eligible. Nothing will change. Unless there are major reforms, the cheating will continue; just don’t get caught.”

Will Barber is a former professor of psycholinguistics and a resident of Chapel Hill.

3 Responses

Comments (3)

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  1. Philip Davis

    The more I hear about the UNC Scandal, the Penn State Scandal, the illogical decisions of the NCAA, and college athletes who are breaking the law or rules, the more I believe its time for us to shut this system down. To my knowledge, my Alma Mata is as clean as any at this point in time, but I know there is history that shows we lost our good judgement in trying to help athletics. If we are going to have a fair playing field, schools like UNC must be punished. If we are going to continue down this path, maybe we should stop the charade and not require athletes to go to class at all.

    And that is when I am ready to stop. If the players cannot be students, then they do not fit the mission of the institution. I am not a professor who has to swallow his pride to keep athletes eligible, but I am an engineer who worked his butt off for the required 138 hours of credit for an engineering degree. I care more about the degree than the football team. I have given thousands of dollars to this academic-athletic mission. I believe it is misguided and that UNC and NC State should begin to look for a conference similar to the Ivey League.

    As for me, I am sickened by the cheating, the shortcuts, the money that defile the names of very fine academic instiutions. We can do better than this, and I think now is the time to start. Its time for all students to earn their degrees no matter what the hardship they face in getting it–that is part of the learning process.

  2. Brendan Ferron

    Phil,
    The problem with you wanting to punish UNC is the fact that something like this happens at almost every college in Division I. Harvard is finding some things in their internal investigation. Duke a couple of years ago was offering bogus classes in the Sociology major. NC State now is having difficulties with Purvis, who the school knew was going to have eligibility problems, but they recruited him anyways. On a larger scale, a lot of these athletes get into these schools that do not have grades even near the normal student that gets accepted. How is this not academic fraud then also, when a kid like Eric Bledsoe at Kenticky gets into school when a normal kids with grades even a little higher than his would have had no chance of getting into that school.
    Yes what UNC did was wrong, but the classes were allowed to non-athletes as well as athletes, so this is not an athletic issue, it is an academic issue within the university. No punishment necessary

  3. Adnan Zlivinovich

    The problem is that that this doesn’t happen at every university. This isn’t a case of athletes signing up for easy courses. This was a system of cheating installed by the university to keep their players eligible. I’m embarrassed for UNC athletic supporters like Brendon Ferron, who really believe that UNC@CH didn’t do anything more wrong than most universities do. Also, Duke NEVER offered bogus Sociology classes, that’s just one of those things UNC@CH athletic supporters bather on about in an attempt to discredit their rivals.

    If you really want to blather on about something, try this on for size: the 2005 National Champion BASKETBALL team from UNC@CH had 7 players eventually graduate. Every single one of them had the same major: AFAM. Sure that title was legitimate.