A recent article in the New York Times blasted Westchester Community College (WCC) and the four-year institutions that initially accepted WCC players as transfer students in an athletic/academic scandal. The wrongs included forged WCC academic transcripts, violations of NJCAA and NCAA rules, an arrest of the men’s head basketball WCC coach, several other coach firings and extinguished student hoop dreams. Although the NYTimes article appeared in late November 2015, the story is not new, with hints of wrongdoing dating back to 2012. One of the affected students (and I use that word intentionally and advisedly as will be described) has filed a lawsuit against Westchester County (the locus of the community college), seeking damages for the forging of his transcripts, ruination of his athletic and athletic opportunities and trauma and emotional distress. And, the Men’s and Women’s 2015 – 2016 Basketball seasons were cancelled.
Quite the saga by any measure.
For me, the whole mess raises a host of issues on a wide range of levels. There are cautionary messages but there should also be outrage – not at the students but at how they have been and are being treated. It makes me wonder whether some of those charged with the responsibility for serving our young people have forgotten to whom they owe a responsibility and how to carry out that responsibility honorably, fairly and wisely. Lost opportunities for student-athletes abound.
Here’s my top five list of concerns:
First, I am deeply offended by the lead-in sentence in the NYTimes story referenced above. The article begins this way and I quote exactly: “They [the students] were an island of misfit toys, the players on the men’s basketball team at Westchester Community College.” (Emphasis added.) Really? They were misfits? By whose definition? They were toys? By whose definition? Is that how we refer to people these days? For me, this is offensive, prejudicial language and certainly reflective of an attitude (by the paper? the author? outsiders?) toward the players. It is as if we lost track of the fact that the WCC athletes are people; our sense of humanity just vanished.
Second, many questions still remain unanswered and the investigations by a myriad of entities into the scandals seem to be remarkably slow in arriving at conclusions. Consider these questions: Were the forgeries of the transcripts known to any of the WCC students? Did the WCC students actually see and approve the transcripts? What happened to the WCC Registrar and the need for “official transcripts?” And, how quickly and when did the receiving four-year institutions (reputable places with quality basketball programs) know or suspect the transcripts were forged? Were the WCC students accepted as transfer students without a careful transcript review and academic advising? Where was the NJCAA Compliance Officer? Where was the WCC athletic director? Where were the students’ WCC and transfer schools’ academic advisors? And, why were the four-year institutions so unwilling to stand by these transfer students they had accepted and help them succeed — with or without basketball in the near term? Yes, there were/are NCAA issues that would need to be mediated together with ranking and conference risks. These “accepting” institutions, save one, were willing to cast the students aside, I suspect to avoid NCAA sanctions. Stated differently, the students seem to have mattered least, not most, here.
Third, make no mistake about this: forging transcripts is intolerable. So is cheating to enable “student-athletes” to play. So is enrolling a student in one class and pretending he is carrying a full load to maintain eligibility. But, the NJCAA and NCAA rules that are in place regarding eligibility and transfer students are fraught with difficulty – in content and process. In some sense, the rules are so out-of-sync with reality that they almost encourage institutional work-arounds. Yes, folks know many “transfer students” will not be able to, or will struggle to, meet the academic requirements before they even set foot on a campus; that has not prevented institutions from enrolling these students. And, to make it all work, the rules are circumvented in ways that often appear systemic as opposed to isolated infractions. Just read the book, Cheated, detailing the scandal at UNC and its expanded critique of many other institutions. It takes your breath away.
Fourth, there could be changes that would help student-athletes and would not lead to academic scandals and would not diminish the integrity of academic standards. Paying athletes has been suggested as one approach; breaking athletics apart from academics has also been a proffered solution. I have suggested a different approach – one that enables students who are athletes and who will struggle academically to benefit from being on a campus.
In this alternative approach, student-athletes across the Divisions could elect to get a degree or to audit a set number of courses and attend other prescribed co-curricular activities. This approach is premised on the notion that student-athletes can benefit from just being part of campus life (academic and psycho-social) if they attend classes and events and are exposed to the myriad of learning opportunities our educational institutions provide.
My approach to collegiate athletes works off the dual notions of osmosis and opportunity. To return to the days of studying science, osmosis generally refers to the process by which molecules are in essence transferred from one place of higher concentration to a place of lower concentration; they literally move across a membrane. (Try the online quiz in the hyperlink; apparently, I still don’t get the true meaning of osmosis.) Outside of the sciences, I have always thought about osmosis as a way of enabling transfer of information, knowledge and wisdom from one or more people to another person, just by that receiving person being present in an academically intellectually rich environment. In fact, at colleges and universities, we fully expect students will learn things through osmosis, everything from course content to norms to social skills to relationship building capacities.
So, the idea of this new approach – which takes much of the wind out of the sails of the NJCAA and NCAA – is to enable “student-athletes” to follow either a degree path or a certificate path, both with opportunities to alter their pathway over time. Do away with the rules on GPA and academic progression as they now exist for those student-athletes on the certificate path (although there could be an admixture as just noted). Ask the student-athletes in the certificate program (four years) to attend four classes a semester (or whatever is the regular load) that are sequenced and contain information/contents/approaches that are of interest to the students, will enhance their professional opportunities when they exit and are academically sound. The “student-athletes” can decide not to do the readings or take the tests or write the papers in which case they would get “audit” credit, as many senior citizens now do in college classes. These students will also be required to attend extra-curricular or co-curricular events on and off campus – poetry or creative writing readings, movies, plays, museum visits. They would also be required to participate in community service projects throughout their four years in school.
Photo: The Gateway Building on the campus of Westchester Community College
I think these “student-athletes” pursuing the certificate path would garner a myriad of benefits – as would the institution they attend. These students would be engaged with other students; they would gain exposure to ideas and information; they might just be inspired to learn more about a particular topic. And, they will certainly accomplish more than if they were not in school. They will be (or should be) in a place that would be fostering their success on and off the court or field – not just for DIII student-athletes but also for DI and DII student-athletes as well.
Bottom line: stop pretending, stop cheating, stop being hypocritical and deal with the student-athletes we have and help them become their best selves. We know how to do that.
Fifth and finally, for these students who play a sport at the collegiate level, we are creating opportunity. And, we are (or should be) treating them with respect and with a belief in their future. They are not misfits. They are not toys. They are young (or relatively young) men and women who can succeed if we help them do so. OK, not every single one but many. They help the institutions they attend economically, in terms of admissions recruitment, national profile and reputation; those institutions can help these student-athletes by opening their minds to new ideas and potential pathways to success after their athletic careers are over.
And, for the record, were I still a college president (I had a wonderful 8 plus year run), I would try to find a way to get the student-athletes so damaged by WCC (and the transfer institutions) to four-year colleges/universities with a carefully constructed pathway to and commitment for their success. What WCC and the four-year colleges that discarded them did is unconscionable. These enrolled student-athletes deserve better. And, folks, it would not surprise me to see all that these student-athletes add to a campus – athletically, personally and intellectually. If you believe in the potential of every individual and the power in the possible, it is not too late. Could some institution and its leaders step up, as did one of the receiving institutions? There’s still time. It would make for a good holiday gift.
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.