Columns, Opinions

Johnson ’14: College sports and income inequality

Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, January 22, 2014

If you are a student enrolled in an accredited college or university, I think you should know how to read. That statement isn’t too controversial, is it?

How about this one: If you are a student-athlete enrolled in an accredited college or university, I think you should know how to read.

Or this one: If you live in the United States of America, you should have access to a quality education.

The United States is unique in the world because of our system of college athletics, wherein the same institutions we expect to advance the frontiers of knowledge are also expected to produce the next generation of elite athletes. Sports are a part of the college experience here, and, in principle, there’s nothing wrong with that. But a recent investigation by CNN showed that at many schools, college athletes are barely literate. The report cited one researcher who found that 60 percent of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill athletes read at between a fourth- and eighth-grade level. Nearly 10 percent read below a third-grade level.

Naturally, following the release of the report, various media outlets ran stories about how colleges and universities are being dishonest and academically disingenuous when they hand out degrees to people who can’t read. Certainly, universities bear some blame for this problem. They make massive amounts of money from athletics, all while allowing student-athletes to struggle through a degree program of questionable integrity and without monetary compensation. A UNC professor was recently indicted for running a fake class — student-athletes received credit for his “course” despite never attending a single lecture — as part of a scheme that stretched for more than a decade. Meanwhile, UNC ran a profit of nearly $17 million last year from basketball alone. Obviously, there are perverse incentives in place that promote academic dishonesty in order to recruit the most elite players, whether or not they can read.

But the media have largely ignored the larger, more important question that CNN’s investigation raises: Why is it so hard to find literate athletes in America? Why does the University of North Carolina, supposedly one of our country’s best universities, have to choose between abilities on a basketball court and the ability to read? Could it be — gasp — that the United States is not doing as much as it should be to educate our children? Could it be that there are simply not enough children, let alone athletes, receiving adequate preparation for college?

Rather than viewing this story as a simple indictment of “big sports” colleges, we should view it as a window into two of America’s most serious problems: inadequate education and worsening income inequality.

According to the Program for International Student Assessment, the United States ranks below the average of developed countries in mathematics. Among the countries that beat us are Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Estonia.

We are simply not doing enough as a country to educate our population. In many poor neighborhoods in America, the dream of escaping poverty through education is more fantasy than reality. Intragenerational mobility, the ability of an American to move to a different socioeconomic class during his or her lifetime, is at its lowest level in decades. Just like in the era that inspired “The Great Gatsby,” in today’s America “the rich get richer and the poor get — children.”

In some of America’s poorest neighborhoods, the only route out of poverty seems to be through sports. Kids see LeBron James, born in poverty but today a multimillionaire, and imagine themselves escaping the way that he did. But for every LeBron, there are millions of kids who don’t make it. They stake their future on athletics only to end up with no education and no hope.

Some may wonder what income inequality has to do with college athletes. In principle, it would be great if low-income kids could use college athletics to move up the income ladder. But in reality, most of them will never make it in professional sports, and about 50 percent never graduate. So what happens to a poor, illiterate athlete who spends years playing for a school without receiving money, an education or a diploma? He stays poor.

The system works like this: Admit poor, illiterate but highly skilled athletes. Don’t pay them, but create the appearance that these athletes are getting a good education and extract millions of dollars from their performance on the field. Then, when they are no longer profitable, send them packing without a degree or an ability to read.

Could someone examine this system and explain to me how it fits in with our national values? Where is the American dream for these athletes? While the media have treated the story of illiterate college athletes as evidence of the corruption and inequity in American universities, they’ve largely failed to notice that the story of these athletes is yet another instance of systematic, persistent inequalities in the United States.



Garret Johnson ’14 is a former Herald opinions editor and can be reached at

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  1. TheRationale says:

    If you can’t read then you should not be admitted to any college. Period. Those students should have been failed out by middle school.

    You diminish the value of a college degree insofar as you admit people on grounds other than their capabilities. What black/hispanic student hasn’t had to deal with “(s)he only got in because (s)he’s a minority.” What athlete doesn’t suffer the stigma of being a troglodyte? And it’s not just cultural – there are “real” negatives effects as well. They fail out at a much higher rate and take on needless debt – so instead of doing something practical to better their lives, they’ve wasted a few years and in some cases are now even worse off because they have that debt to contend with.

    The athlete situation is shameful. We should expect universities to be better than this and to have some principles.

  2. cathy edelstein says:

    I agree with Mr. Johnson. After all, they shoot horses don’t they? Cathy Edelstein

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