What Do College Athletes Really Learn?

When confronted with the assertion that “intercollegiate athletics is exploitative, too costly, and rife with academic cheating,” my immediate response was to respond in the negative. As a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Syracuse University, and now a student at Marshall University, intercollegiate sports provide a cultural and branding element that was a common theme. While all three institutions are known for academics and athletics, the branding of the athletic programs places a luster on the institutions in the public eye beyond academics.

However, that immediate response warranted significant exploration. In many ways, the exploitation, cost, and lack of academic rigor in intercollegiate athletics is not only real but reflects some of the same elements criticized about higher education generally. Intercollegiate athletics is a reflection, a microcosm, of the higher education environment in which it exists as an integral part.

Bowen (2016) focuses on developing measurable learning outcomes for athletics and references the NCAA Study of Student-Athlete Social Environments (2014) and the NCAA GOALS Study of the Student-Athlete Experience (2016) as reinforcing data that student-athletes have both unrealistic and entitled approaches to higher education and intercollegiate athletics. Interestingly, the raw data provided in the NCAA reports did not support Bowen’s assertion that athletes had exaggerated entitlement, with most measures below 25% and not measured against a control group of students. What did stand out in the NCAA studies was a feeling by student-athletes that only 27% of male athletes and 30% of female athletes felt that the faculty viewed student-athletes favorably. The perceptions noted in the call of the question may reflect the opinion of faculty generally and are reflected on intercollegiate athletics in much of the academic work done in the area.

The work by Van Rheenen (2012) focuses on economic exploitation by looking at surplus revenue in comparison to the “wages” paid in the form of scholarships and other compensation. Noting a disproportionate number of Black athletes in revenue-producing sports, their corresponding lower graduation rates and academic success point to racially driven factors in opportunity, success, and economic exploitation in revenue-producing Division I NCAA athletic programs.  It is difficult to argue with the data provided by Van Rheenen that in the case of high-performing, high revenue Division I sports, that there is not some level of structural and systemic exploitation of a subset of elite athletes in elite programs.

Romeo (2016) supports this assertion by noting that only about 5-7% of the revenues generated in the ACC and Pac-12 conferences on men’s basketball and football are paid back to those student-athletes in the form of athletic scholarships. However, the few thousand student-athletes participating in these programs are largely overshadowed by the nearly 500,000 intercollegiate student-athletes between the NCAA and NAIA. Emma (2017) notes the value of athletics on enrollment, marketing, branding, and long-term alumni engagement for institutions that are not limited to elite programs.

There are areas, especially with elite athletes and elite programs, which require reform. The high-profile scandals at North Carolina and most recently with the college admissions pay to play do not reflect most experiences of student-athletes. Athletics provide access to schools and alumni networks and personal growth opportunities for nearly 500,000 students – a majority of whom are not participating in elite revenue/profit-producing sports. The athletic programs need monitoring – and some need reform, but athletics has value and a place in higher education.



Azziz, R. (2017, December 07). The Value of Collegiate Athletics: Let’s Not Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-value-of-collegiate-a_b_6108674

Bowen, M. G. (2016, October 26). Intercollegiate athletics should be assessed for their educational impact (essay). Retrieved June 01, 2019, from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/10/26/intercollegiate-athletics-should-be-assessed-their-educational-impact-essay .

Emma, L. (2017, November 21). The Importance of College Athletic Programs to Universities. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://education.seattlepi.com/importance-college-athletic-programs-universities-1749.html

NAIA. (n.d.). Play Sports in College. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from http://www.naia.org/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=27900&ATCLID=205322930

NCAA GOALS study of the student-athlete experience initial summary of findings. (2016). Retrieved June 1, 2019, from http://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/GOALS_2015_summary_jan2016_final_20160627.pdf

NCAA study of student-athlete social environments. (2014). Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/social_environments_draft_convention2014_0.pdf

Romeo, N. (2016, February 22). Does the NCAA exploit student-athletes? – The Boston Globe. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2016/02/21/does-ncaa-exploit-student-athletes/OnIF5KDFbt6oYACJlBBsSP/story.html

NCAA. (n.d.). Student-athletes. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from http://www.ncaa.org/student-athletes

Van Rheenen, D. (2012). Exploitation in college sports: Race, revenue, and educational reward. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 48(5), 550-571. doi:10.1177/1012690212450218 .


Windsor, S. (2018, May 13). Ending exploitation of athletes would be good start to fixing NCAA. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://www.freep.com/story/sports/university-michigan/2018/05/13/ncaa-fix-exploitation-college-athletes/605162002/

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