Sharpened pencil next to sheet paper by Thomaseagle, CC-BY-3.0

I have been a student athlete for as long as I can remember. From personal experience, it is not an easy task. Learning how to balance schoolwork with a regimented athletic schedule places a lot of pressure on a person. Not only must a student athlete excel in the classroom in order to keep grades for personal achievement and to be eligible to play, a student athlete must also excel in his or her respective sport in order to meet coaching expectations and see the field. For those who have not had first hand experience in this overwhelming juggling act, it is hard to see past the “dumb jock” stereotype that blankets much of society. Sadly, this stereotype was recently reinforced as news of the UNC scandal went viral. This athletic/academic scandal is not only a blow to UNC’s reputation as an accredited and selective university, but also a major disappointment and insult to every student athlete that plays college athletics.

Frankly, the UNC scandal undermines the legitimacy of the phrase, “student-athlete” by faking half of the juggling act. The fact that 3,100 students, 1,500 student athletes, over the course of 18 years have been enrolled in “paper classes” at UNC that consisted of one paper graded by a secretary in the African and Afro-American Studies Department is disheartening. Bottom line, it calls into question UNC as a whole, from the department operation and chairs, to administration, to athletic personnel, coaches, and the student athletes themselves. Although these “paper courses” were created to help struggling student athletes, in reality, they only succeeded in leaving student athletes without an education when their four years of eligibility expired.

Clearly, the behavior of everyone involved in this scheme was at its root, unethical. A select number of individuals directly involved in the scandal succeeded in manipulating professors into giving unwarranted grades, lying to the university about course structure and supervision, and falsely awarding course credit to students who did not do or learn much of anything. In this case, it may be true that the student athletes agreed to cheat the system and take these “paper courses” to lighten their course load and remain eligible. However, student athletes across the world did not agree to have their reputation as hardworking, smart individuals tarnished and questioned.

What many argue in response to the UNC scandal is that “this sort of thing happens everywhere!” Interestingly, both Stanford and Northwestern have been questioned when it comes to the courses some student athlete’s take. However, this response is exactly what marks the greater ethical concern regarding college athletics as a whole.

How do we better protect student athletes from unfair and degrading treatment by the institutions they play for?

The hard work, dedication and commitment it takes to be both a student and an athlete is unfathomable unless you have done it yourself. From first-hand experience playing in both Division I athletics and Division III athletics, being a student athlete is not the dream you might imagine. The glory fades quickly, wins take extraordinary effort, and there is rarely a break in the demanding and regimented workouts and training. To be a college athlete takes a lot of work and sacrifice. That is why student athletes at all universities deserve to be respected and treated with dignity. Instead of assuming they will not succeed and providing shortcuts and cover stories, universities ought to be supporting student athletes in productive and lasting ways.

Although I do not have a clear answer for the question above, the reality is, only a select few individuals have the privilege to play a varsity sport at the college level. Those who are granted the opportunity, should use it wisely. And that said, those who have power over these select few, should use their position and resources to advance athlete’s development in a way that will better the whole person, not just the athletics.