Suspect Academic Practices in Men's Athletics Indicated by the Academic Records

Prepared by L. Bensel-Meyers, April 5, 2000

The following report was presented to the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate on April 17, 2000.

I. Statement of the Problem
II. Abuses in the Athletic Tutoring Operation
III. Civil Rights Violations in the "Special Needs" Program
IV. The Larger Systemic Problem Revealed in the Academic Records
V. Administrative Complicity and Responsibility
I. Statement of the Problem
A large portion of male football and basketball athletes at UTK do not receive an education, and often not even a degree, in exchange for the profitable contributions they make to the university and surrounding community. Consequently, instead of offering athletic scholarships to give under-privileged students access to an education, UT has implemented a system that exploits athletes for institutional profit, replacing affirmative action opportunity with a system tantamount to institutionalized slavery.

Although, if operated conscientiously, academic assistance to athletes can enable under-privileged young men access to an education they might not otherwise be entitled to, the evidence indicates that UT recruits the best athletes without respect to their potential to handle course work. In addition, these "at risk" students are further compromised by the highly-demanding practice and competition schedules required of them in our high-revenue program. Consequently, the academic operations housed within the UT Athletic Department run contrary to our claim that athletic scholarships are a form of affirmative action, providing minorities access to higher education; instead, they are a means of exploiting an under-privileged population for the institution's financial profit without concern for the athletes' future welfare, essentially a modern-day incarnation of institutionalized slavery. Because this institution uses college athletes for their own profit, keeping the student eligible for competition takes precedence over any opportunity the student might have for getting an education or even a degree; and because the NCAA has a vested interest in keeping profitable collegiate teams viable, using the NCAA to oversee academics within the Athletic Department makes as much sense as letting the fox protect the chicken farm.

Although some might say "everyone does this," the problems at UT are extreme for a Division I institution and threaten to undermine academic integrity throughout our educational system. As the evidence shows, the system manipulates academic policies to keep athletes eligible while consciously orchestrating a system whereby individuals who detect suspect academic practices are coerced into silence or fired for bogus charges. I have experienced both how the Athletic Department undermines faculty attempts to deliver instruction and how it manipulates the academic administration to whom these faculty turn for redress. Ultimately, this systemic corruption of academic practices in the Athletic Department's Office of Student Life (OSL) compromises the academic experience for all students at the Knoxville campus, affecting the integrity of grades, tutoring, advising, and, ultimately, the value of a UT college degree.
II. Abuses in the Athletic Tutoring Operation
This report summarizes the academic abuses uncovered through my role as Director of Composition. The primary contact I have had with Athletics is with the tutoring operation in the Office of Student Life that has expanded rapidly in the past ten years. Our involvement began in 1990 when the Director of the Writing Center was physically and verbally accosted by two athletes, disrupting the Center's operations and creating friction between the athletes and the other students working in the center. The Departments of English and Athletics, at that time, negotiated a satellite writing center, to be located in the Athletic Department and staffed by tutors approved by the English Department to alleviate the problems and ensure control over the assistance provided.

When a shift in personnel occurred in 1995, however, it became clear that other tutors, not approved by English, were providing excessive assistance, even to the point of writing papers for athletes enrolled in English courses. What is most disconcerting, however, is not that plagiarism was occurring as much as that it was apparently institutionally mandated: in one extreme case, the athlete, when questioned about the discrepancy between his in-class and out-of-class work, openly explained that he was told that the tutor was to write his papers for him. Because what constitutes plagiarism is part of the subject matter of the freshman English courses, the English faculty can prosecute a student for plagiarizing only if there is an intention to deceive on the student's part. Because we could not prosecute the student nor accept the paper as his own, we attempted to work with the Athletic Department tutor to explain why this was a transgression. However, the Athletic Department tutor actually argued with faculty over what constituted acceptable work in English. Because the faculty have no jurisdiction over the athletic operations, I appealed through the college and upper-administration through a series of memos. However, the administration did not respond, and my only recourse was to threaten to bring the Athletic Department up for charges of academic dishonesty.

At this time, in a meeting with Carmen Tegano and Gerry Dickey, from the Office of Student Life, and Allen Carroll and Don Cox, Head and Associate Head of the English Department, I requested that the tutor be reprimanded and that all tutoring of writing, regardless of subject, go through the English tutors we approve and train. I also requested that the tutoring operation be monitored with ongoing training of the staff by an individual we recommend to OSL. Tegano and Dickey agreed. However, the individual we sent over was told after a few months that she had not been hired, and another individual, who was not experienced and did not know UT academic policies, was put in her place. Also, the tutor who was to be reprimanded was hired full-time to run the rapidly expanding "special needs" program, which continues to tutor writing without our approval.

This case, well-documented in my evidence, serves as an exemplar of the other problems we encountered with athletes turning in suspect papers to English teachers. Too often, though, when faculty would call over to OSL to discuss a suspect paper with a tutor, no charges would occur: usually, the athlete would stop attending the class and the issue of intentionality would not be resolved. Hence, although there are no overt NCAA violations of athletes receiving credit for papers we did detect, there is ample evidence that plagiarism was occurring and that, most likely, many papers were not flagged by the fairly novice instructors who staff these courses. The fact that the operation existed, and still exists, even though Athletic and Academic administrators have been made aware of the problems, is evidence of ongoing lack of institutional control over academic assistance.

I have attempted throughout the years to work with the Athletic Administration to create a tutoring operation that would improve our athletes' access to educational opportunities while answering simultaneously to the excessive demands of athletic participation. From the modest beginning in 1990, and the NCAA recommendation for the development of academic assistance operations for athletes, the Office of Student Life has rapidly expanded, ultimately housing as many as 100 non-trained "tutors" in addition to the five or six approved by the English department. I have the contracts we developed with the Athletic Department in 1990 and 1991, and the renegotiation of that contract in 1995 when rampant plagiarism came to my attention. However, I also have evidence that the Athletic Department has consciously attempted to circumvent the safeguards we recommended. In addition, once we pulled the Writing Center Satellite back into the main Writing Center (as of November 1, 1999), the Athletic Department has openly violated academic policy by establishing their own English tutoring in Student Life. At the time of the move, thirty-three (33) athletes were prepared to pass their writing center courses; after the move, only fifteen (15) of these athletes completed the course in the main writing center. This following Spring term, only fifteen (15) athletes were advised to enroll in the Writing Center courses (compared to 42 in the previous year), in violation of the academic policy that any student in first-year composition with ACT scores at or below 18 English and 18 composite, or with SAT scores at or below 450 verbal and 850 composite, be required to register for these courses. In addition, the Office of Student Life has independently hired its own English tutors and is openly allowing tutors to help athletes with their writing assignments, in violation of the academic policy that all students use the main Writing Center or an academically-approved satellite for tutoring of writing in all courses.

It is clear that the integrity of the system continues to decline, and that the Athletic Department is mandating unacceptable tutoring practices that can only be described as "institutional plagiarism." It is for this reason that I refuse to comply with the request from the chief Academic Officer that we prosecute individual athletes when plagiarism is detected, since the request clearly sets a double standard non-athletes are not subjected to: i.e., we are being asked to prosecute the athlete for a transgression mandated by a university department.
III. Civil Rights Violations in the "Special Needs" Program
The circumstances under which athletes receive academic direction could be construed as a violation of their civil rights, particularly in the rapidly expanding "Special Needs" unit which exploits the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to give "at risk" students (broadly defined) not equal access to an education but to waive them from one. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) clearly spells out in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that students have the right both to determine whether they wish to be tested for a disability and to choose whether they wish the results of their testing to be disclosed. It also states that students cannot receive accommodations for a disability unless they disclose their disability to the faculty involved. In the English department, we have encountered athletes who were receiving accommodations for a learning disability without the faculty member being informed of that fact. As my evidence indicates, student-athletes do not always recognize they have a right to choose whether they wish to receive the accommodations given them, and when a student-athlete is assigned to a tutor within the Athletics Department, he is expected to comply with the tutor's instruction as to what constitutes "acceptable help." It is also questionable whether the student has the option to not be tested when the question comes from an athletic official; the conflict of interest is great when a coach "asks" an athlete who is on an athletic scholarship and competing for a starting position on the team if he is willing to be tested.

The "Special Needs" operation, that continues to tutor students in writing against university policy, has expanded over the years to accommodate "at risk" students. Since the term "at risk" is variable from institution to institution, and tends to cover all students who are first in their family to attend college and/or have extraordinary demands that inhibit their participation in the educational opportunities of a large campus environment, it could easily be construed to cover all student-athletes. Hence, there are many athletes receiving accommodations, including having their papers written for them, in the name of the ADA although in violation of OCR regulations (which clearly describe that accommodations are to be determined by the faculty who know what the subject matter of the course is). Clearly, the Disabilities Act is being exploited to keep athletes eligible for competition, to waive them from educational tasks rather than accommodate their needs to learn from them. If the ADA were to be used as intended, then the recruitment of athletes with learning disabilities would mean the Athletic Department should ensure these students spend more time, not less, on their academics than the general student body.
IV. The Larger Systemic Problem Revealed in the Academic Records
The tutoring abuses relate to a larger systemic problem when one looks at the academic records for athletes. On one level, potential tutoring abuses in English courses can be detected in the anonymous academic records I have compiled, particularly when a grade in an English course is not consonant with the student's SAT/ACT scores or performance in other courses. However, these anonymous records reveal suspect tutoring practices for other courses as well, specifically by revealing how the advising operation with the Athletic Department consciously manipulates the athletes' program of study to keep athletes eligible for sports participation with little regard for a student's progress in a degree program. A cursory review of the anonymous academic records reveals how most athletes are steered into the same courses, even though together these courses do not make up a coherent program of study. As the similarities in course schedules reveal, the Athletic Department advising operation has ascertained which courses and faculty were most "friendly" to the athletes--those courses which require least of the students and those faculty willing to make exceptions or change grades to keep an athlete eligible for competition. Some of the courses, too, reflect the nature of the abuses in the tutoring program, being those large courses for which the tests and assignments are predictable from one year to the next. This is why some of the tutors on staff in the Office of Student Life give assistance for a variety of courses for which they are not specially trained; their expertise is knowing what materials a student would need for successful completion of the course without having to learn all of the subject matter. Although it is not unusual to discover fraternities or other student organizations that keep files of past papers and tests for courses at the university, it is unusual for a university department to engage in such a practice, no matter how obliquely. Even if those overseeing the operation merely refuse to acknowledge what is going on, the practice of telling a student, as one tutor has been reported saying, "this is all you need to know" is unacceptable when housed in a university department.

The advising operation in the Athletic Department not only manipulates the course choices the athletes can make but the major as well. As the records indicate, when a major is declared (oftentimes it is not, even by the time a student leaves without a degree as a senior), athletes are steered toward only one or two preferred majors because these majors have the fewest general education requirements and enable the meaningless variety of courses the athletes were registered for in their first two years to count toward a degree. However, such manipulation clearly keeps the choice of major out of the athletes' hands. Particularly disturbing are those records where an athlete had declared a challenging major his first term (such as Engineering or Business), but, after attempting to meet the requirements and keep up with his studies without support from the Athletic Department to do so, ends up being released from that major, shifted to a less challenging degree program (such as Urban Studies or Sports Management), and ultimately academically dismissed after his last term of competition. In such cases, the records trace the fracturing of a student's hopes and dreams: how an ambitious though academically-disadvantaged student who buys into the myth of the athletic scholarship as a way to better himself fares when confronted with the economic self-interest of the institution.

The consistency of the course schedules which the Athletic Department constructed for many of these athletes reveals that the athletes themselves were not encouraged to participate in their educational choices. The records also reveal that many of these athletes are not subject to the same academic probation policies as are the general student body. Many are on academic review for the majority of their academic career, only to be academically dismissed once they have expended their last term of eligibility. (One is even taking classes and practicing with the team, after having been academically dismissed this past fall.) In addition, the records reveal suspect grade changes, which often occur when an athlete is on academic review and when slight alterations in the GPA will keep the athlete eligible for competition, sometimes just by changing an F to an I only to have the F return once the athlete's eligibility runs out.

Because athletic officials and not the students exert control over the registration process, and because athletic officials and not the students themselves communicate with the faculty about an athlete's progress in a course, the athletes themselves are denied the right to make their own educational choices without fearing they would jeopardize their athletic scholarship or position on the team. The conflict of interest involved in having the athletic administration handle academic advising may not be overtly evident to the students, particularly since the climate in the athletic department is one that would encourage students to improve at their sport by maintaining the belief that a career in professional sports was a real option. However, former athletes who have contacted me assure me that the hard reality will come, even if, while in college, athletes might not realize how they are sacrificing educational opportunities for an oft-unfulfilled dream. However, the Auburn alum, Brooks, recently admitted in a court of law that he could not read or write, and a former Texas Tech athlete recently brought suit against his institution for not giving him the education he had been promised. This is only the beginning. Even if we do not want to be the kind of institution where we acknowledge that the education we give our athletes is academically fraudulent, and even if we will not admit we are exploiting minorities for institutional profit, or worse, even if we do not have the institutional backbone to avoid excusing the practice because "everyone does it" (although we are more expert at it than most), certainly we should recognize the potential for lawsuits from former athletes makes this athletic academic operation a risky venture?
V. Administrative Complicity and Responsibility
If the administration does wish to confront the problem, then the first order of business should be to recompense those graduate students and instructors who were unjustly treated because they were doing their job when they attempted to report these problems. It is clear that the Athletic Department was aware of the problems and conscientiously sought to keep them hidden particularly in the treatment of English instructors and teaching associates who sought to report these abuses. The confidentiality agreement the Athletic Department asks English instructors to sign was not written solely to keep the athletes' academic performances private but also to inhibit the reporting of abuses to academic officials. Similarly, some English department faculty have been offered positions in the Athletic Department in exchange for their complicity in the cover-up of abuses. Perhaps most egregious, though, is the failure of institutional control. There is documented evidence of English tutors reporting the problems to the Athletic Department officials, even though the Athletic Department maintains nothing occurred. The Administration, too, has called these occurrences "mere rumors," although the abuses have been documented through memos sent through the academic administrative hierarchy over the years. It is unconscionable that a university Administration would allow the Athletic Department to fire these dedicated faculty for invented charges and to ignore the written complaints they submitted. Particularly disconcerting is the willingness to allow the athletes to physically and verbally abuse instructors because these tutors would not write their papers for them or had reported their transgressions to the administration. The first step in regaining credibility for UT as an academic institution that preserves the ideals universities were established to protect is to redress these abuses and not defame those who performed their jobs with courage and integrity.

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