Archive for Thursday, September 30, 2004

Athletic credit can be justified

September 30, 2004


First The Washington Post revealed that football players in some of America's finest universities were receiving academic credit for participating in their sport, in courses taught by head coaches. Then NBC, in a recent halftime piece aired during the Notre Dame-Michigan football game (and in which I was quoted), called the practice fraud and cheating. Sports columnists nationwide are expressing outrage about intercollegiate athletics gone wild again.

Unfortunately, these outraged broadcast and print commentators have forgotten how they set up their own class schedules when they were in college.

Credit for participation has long been part of college curricula. Universities, including the best public and private institutions, give credit for participation outside the classroom: performing in the symphony, choir, dance or theater; writing for the student newspaper; studying abroad; taking physical education activity classes. Many universities give credit for life experiences before entering college, especially for older students.

One large and growing category is service learning, in which students receive course credit for community activities such as volunteering in a soup kitchen, working with troubled youth or doing neighborhood cleanups. One-third of Division I-A schools give academic credit for participating in athletics practice, not only in football but in other sports as well.

Is this bad? Is it cheating? Is it fraud? It depends.

At most U.S. institutions of higher learning, about 120 semester credit hours are required for graduation. Of that, about a third are designated for a major, say in physics, philosophy or journalism. Another third must be in general education; that is, required courses distributed across the disciplines but including English, math, foreign languages and so on. The final third typically is made up of electives.

Elective courses cover a wide range. Some students use them to satisfy their intellectual curiosity in the arts and sciences; others simply take courses they find enjoyable. Some electives may be taken ungraded, pass-fail, and require little or no written work.

Nonetheless, participation courses for credit are tricky, open to abuse and fraud. In my opinion, credit for participation in athletics practice is permissible under carefully controlled conditions. It should be an elective for minimal credits -- say, one or two -- and be non-repeatable, attendance-required and pass-fail. To assign a letter grade gives an unfair advantage to student-athletes in determining their grade-point average. It's acceptable for a coach to teach the course, just as it is for the symphony conductor to do so for participation in orchestra practice.

A recent, highly publicized case, in which an assistant coach gave a graded course for credit that had a silly final exam, is a clear case of academic fraud. The university acted properly in terminating that person.

Who is in charge of the curriculum? If the practice of offering credit for athletics participation is to be changed, who can do it? The answer is that the faculty has sole control over curriculum content -- not the coach or the athletics director, nor the university president, and certainly not the NCAA national office. It's up to the faculty on campus to monitor the curriculum and change it according to its best judgment.

In fact, the faculty may not want to eliminate elective-participation courses when these courses meet strict conditions. Not all learning that takes place in college happens in class or through textbooks. College graduates should have learned persistence, teamwork, leadership and personal communication skills. Activities such as athletics, music and ROTC -- each under the direction of a knowledgeable teacher and monitor -- can teach these skills.

College credit for participation in athletics and other fields is more complex and nuanced than its critics allow. It would help if they did their homework before drawing conclusions.

-- Myles Brand is president of the NCAA.

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