Florida State and academic fraud

Some of you who follow US college sports will have heard about FSU’s admitting that 61 of its athletes cheated on exams, with the aid of their athletic academic advisers, during the 2006-7 seasons. (See ESPN story and video.) When such a matter happens the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the body that regulates college sports, imposes a sanction the students and the college or university. FSU administrators are now complaining about the penalty being levied on the institution, the forfeit of any victories in which the inelligible players were active. This is a tough, harsh rule and to be fair it does seem that FSU was trying to get to the bottom of this problem. From Inside Higher Ed:

In addition, Abele said, Florida State arguably went to extraordinary measures to ensure that it uncovered the full depth and breadth of the violations. When a Florida State basketball player first told university officials that a tutor had directed him to fill out a teammate’s quiz in an online psychology course, that prompted an initial investigation and questioning of athletes and employees that led to the ineligibility of 21 athletes by September 2007.

Florida State could have left the case at that, Abele said, affecting far fewer athletes on far fewer teams. But at the encouragement of Wetherell, the president, who said the university should “do everything possible to understand what was going on, and if there’s problem to fix things,” Abele assembled a team of computer experts to conduct a thorough analysis of the patterns of exam taking and grades in the online music course. (As part of the process, Abele and Wetherell both took the exams to help develop a baseline for how long students should have spent on them, he said.)

That, it seems to me, is simply what a college or university should do in any case. If you believe you have a problem with cheating it is the institution’s responsibility to investigate that to the fullest extent, no matter what the results. It is the only way to restore academic integrity.

But FSU has a major sports program, not unlike PSU. Why the comparison? Because the NCAA sanctions, if imposed, will directly impact the only competition these two schools really have: coaching records. Again, from Inside Higher Education:

Bobby Bowden
Marc Serota/Getty Images

If you were still looking for evidence of the skewed lens through which most Americans (and reporters, for that matter) look at big-time college sports, consider the curious case of Florida State University.

On Friday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that more than 60 athletes at the university had cheated in two online courses over a year and a half long period, one of the most serious cases of academic fraud in the NCAA’s recent history.

Yet just about all anyone seemed to be able to talk about — especially Florida State fans in commenting on the case and news publications in reporting on it — is how the NCAA’s penalties (which include requiring Florida State to vacate an undetermined number of victories in which the cheating athletes competed) might undermine the legacy of the university’s football coach, Bobby Bowden. Bowden has one fewer career victory than Pennsylvania State University’s longtime coach, Joe Paterno, and if Florida State has to wipe out as many as 14 football wins from 2007 and 2008, it could end Bowden’s chance of being the all-time winningest coach in big-time college football.

There are also 9 other sports that will be affected, but none of those teams or coaches have the profile of the football team and Bowden. Florida sports journalists are coming to Bowden’s defense saying that it isn’t fair, that he “is being punished more than anyone else in this academic-fraud case. And, worse yet, he’s being punished for the malfeasance of others.” But as a coach he has also received credit for the work of others. Sure great coaches (and administrators) have to provide leadership and direction without which their programs would not be as succesful, but there would be no victories without the players, so ultimately great coaches (and administrators) have to take responsibility for their players, and in this case also athletic academic advisers, actions. We have not yet heard from Coach Bowden. It is my hope that as a man of integrity he will step up and take responsibility here, whether others feel he needs to or not, and declare that the culture at FSU has to be one of success with honor.

Unfortunately this sort of “circling the wagons” is not going to help win over those (particularly academics) who feel that sports in college has simply gotten too professional and out of hand. Don’t get me wrong, I am not gloating for Coach Paterno or feeling Schadenfreude. My guess would be that such cheating has happened in all programs, particularly programs this large. The question of the institutions character is in how you deal with the consequnces. FSU has a chance to demonstrate that education and not athletics, honor and not victory are their priorities. So far football is winning…

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