Nationwide sports scandals reveal problems for athletes

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April 11, 2017

12:06 AM

While fans of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team celebrated redemption after winning the championship this year, College of William and Mary Professor Jamel Donnor remembered something else: scandal.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is currently investigating UNC for allegations of academic fraud in its major sports programs.

Donnor co-edited the book “Scandals in College Sports: Legal, Ethical, and Policy Case Studies,” with Professor Sean Harper from the University of Southern California. The book was released this February. It highlights 21 different college sports scandals, analyzing the relationship between higher education and athletics.

Donnor said that he originally discussed the project with his co-editor while working on a master’s degree at Ohio State University around the time of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University.

Part of Donnor’s inspiration for the book came from his personal experience working at different universities. While at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he worked as an academic mentor to the football and men’s basketball teams.

“I kind of saw up close and personal the ways in which athletes — particularly African-American athletes — were steered towards certain majors, were academically tracked, and how their experience in a day-to-day type sense was completely different to their white counterparts,” Donnor said.

Later, as a professor at the California State University at Fullerton, he had more than one interaction with sports faculty regarding athlete academic performance.

“If a student was on the margins, you know, I could expect to have a coach waiting outside my office to have a conversation about that particular student,” Donnor said. “It wasn’t necessarily a conversation of, you know, look the other way, but, you know, it was [a], you know, this won’t happen again, we’ll deal with it type of situation.”

Donnor thinks that the nation-wide culture of collegiate athletics creates conflicts with student athletes and their academic lives, especially when racial stereotypes are involved.

Black athletes in particular have a more distinct existence on campus than say your ‘traditional students,’” Donnor said. “White students and white faculty members might just view them as resources for more deserving students or they’re only just here to fill a sports quota — only here to play sports — or they’re only here because of affirmative action, which in most instances is not the case.”

“Black athletes in particular have a more distinct existence on campus than say your ‘traditional students,’” Donnor said. “White students and white faculty members might just view them as resources for more deserving students or they’re only just here to fill a sports quota — only here to play sports — or they’re only here because of affirmative action, which in most instances is not the case.”

Possibly the biggest scandal of all, in Donnor’s eyes, is that student athletes often do not enjoy the full benefits of their college careers because they feel pressured into certain majors, and they have to sacrifice time to practice.

“It’s a year-round sport, it’s no longer a seasonal sport, and they’re constantly being evaluated,” Donnor said. “Students and their families get the message early on that it’s really more about athletics than it is about academics.

Senior Assistant Athletics Director for Public Affairs Pete Clawson believes that if the ethics of college sports is a nation-wide issue, the College is an exception to the rule.

“I’ve been here 22 years and I can’t say that I’ve handled anything that I would call a scandal,” Clawson said. “We have a slogan that we do athletics the right way. A lot of people probably hear that as lip service, but it’s something that I truly believe.”

Clawson said that he thinks that the College’s positive athletic record is not just a product of its size, but also a product of its culture.

“I don’t know that we have any sort of magic formula, but I just think it’s that there’s a culture of compliance, and anything that’s going to stick out is going to really stick out here because we’re so used to people doing things the right way,” Clawson said.

The College’s most notable sports scandal occurred in 1951, when multiple sports faculty members resigned after accusations that the football program manipulated students’ academic records.

In more recent history, the College has not experienced a sports scandal similar to this.

Zach Burdick ’20 is a wide receiver for the varsity football team and plans to apply to the business school to earn a degree in accounting.

He said that athletics require him to keep a rigid schedule, but that he has developed stronger self-discipline through the experience.

“You don’t really get as much of a social life,” Burdick said. “Your schedule is pretty tight, and you just have to go from one thing to another, and in order to keep up with academics you can’t slack off.”

Even as an athlete, academics are Burdick’s top priority.

As far as football, I came here to play, but I also came here to receive a great education, and I know that that is the most important thing because you can’t play football if you’re not eligible,” Burdick said. “Your academics honestly have to come first, and all of us on the team understand that.”

“As far as football, I came here to play, but I also came here to receive a great education, and I know that that is the most important thing because you can’t play football if you’re not eligible,” Burdick said. “Your academics honestly have to come first, and all of us on the team understand that.”

During his time at the College, Burdick said he has not experienced any bias from professors or heard his teammates discuss issues with faculty.

Burdick remembers that the athletic department helped him understand the time constraints of collegiate athletics before he committed to the College. He thinks that his entire team realizes the costs and benefits of their athletic lives.

“They kind of give you an idea of what your schedule is going to be like and how things will work around with time,” Burdick said. “We don’t expect to have everything, you know. We know it comes with sacrifices, so that’s the price you pay.”

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  • Noah Petersen