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In the wake of a series of headline-grabbing amateurism-related scandals that have rocked some of college football’s most storied programs this summer, the garden variety academic fraud uncovered at UNC didn’t raise many eyebrows. But this type of academic misconduct exposes one of the great lies underlying both big-time college sports and the American obsession with higher education in general.

For many Americans, graduating from a four-year college is neither necessary nor helpful in their chosen line of work. As a result, forcing them to attend classes they don’t want or need to take only encourages cheating. There’s nothing wrong with breaking a morally unjust law, and there’s nothing wrong with cheating if it’s the best way you can ensure your family a shot at breaking out of poverty.

Two former UNC defensive lineman, Marvin Austin and Michael McAdoo, were implicated in an academic fraud case involving a professor known to be a friend of the athletics program. Austin, despite scoring so low on the writing section of the SAT that he needed remedial classes, received an honors grade in a graduate-level writing class while an obviously plagiarized paper McAdoo submitted was ignored.

Neither was allowed to play at UNC last season, hurting their draft stock tremendously. NFL teams were wary of them not because of their inability to produce a well-written college essay, but because they hadn’t played in a game in almost two years. Because the NFL doesn’t have a minor league system, the NCAA’s eligibility requirements were preventing them from making a living. 

UNC-Chapel Hill is one of the elite public universities in the country; the freshman class of 2012 had an average GPA of 4.6 and a SAT score of 1344. Austin's low SAT scores indicate that he entered campus at a significant disadvantage from the rest of his peers.

Catching up would have required a single-minded focus on academics, something his responsibility to the football team made impossible. While the NCAA limits the amount of supervised practice time during the school year, there’s no way to limit time in the weight room or watching film.

If Austin had focused on school, he’d risk losing his spot on the team. A college football scholarship isn’t a four-year guarantee; it has to be renewed each year by the coaching staff. Oversigning, where a school signs more freshman than it has available scholarships, is common. From 2007-2010, Alabama signed 113 football players, despite having room for only 85 scholarships in that time period.

This numbers crunch penalizes players who want to focus on their academics, and encourages them to do just enough to stay eligible. The graduation rates of many top football and basketball programs are abysmal. UConn, the defending men’s basketball champion, graduated only 31% of its players.

Austin was able to score just high enough on the SAT to squeak in. Derrick Rose, the current NBA MVP, wasn’t so lucky. Rose, an 18-year old product of one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods, had very few options when he couldn’t pass the SAT. Playing against the substantially inferior competition in junior college or the National Basketball Development League would have devastated his NBA draft stock.

Placed in an impossible situation, he resorted to academic fraud. Someone else took the SAT in his name so he could play college basketball at Memphis. If his career depended on the abstract reasoning skills the SAT measures, his employer would have been outraged. Of course, his NBA team, the Chicago Bulls, couldn’t care less.

“As it is now, if you want to play football or basketball professionally, you have to go to college even if you have no interest in education. So a young athlete gets someone to take the SAT for him. Or he gets papers written for him,” Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy told the Miami Herald. “They aren’t bad people. They don’t have any less integrity than anyone else. They are caught in a ridiculous system … putting them in a position to have to fake school.”

The easy answer is to blame Rose, Austin, and McAdoo for not working hard in school, but college measures only a few of the nine different types of intelligence. Asking someone who can make a career out of his body/kinesthetic intelligence to pass an unnecessary test of his linguistic and logistical-mathematical ability is no more fair than forcing science Ph.D. students to run a 40-yard dash or bench-press 185 pounds.

No one would blame a physics student for cheating on the bench-press in order to pursue his chosen career, and no one should blame basketball and football players for cheating on upper-level math exams or plagiarizing graduate-level papers to pursue theirs.

Photo Credit: avinashkunnath