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It's time for colleges to stop recruiting athletes

It's time for colleges to stop recruiting athletes
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There are many points of failure in the college admissions scandal that broke earlier this week, and no shortage of blame to go around. Dozens of parents were so hellbent on getting their kids into an elite undergraduate institution, they broke ethical rules and, allegedly, a whole slew of federal laws.

Federal agents say that $25 million changed hands through the scheme. Some college athletics coaches were right in the center of the fraud, taking hefty bribes to help wealthy students game the system. Students were fraudulently presented as pole-vaulting champions or crew stars, knowing such an artifice would be their ticket into the school of their dreams.

This should not be possible. I don’t just mean the paying of the bribe — that clearly violates the professional obligation of the coach to his or her team, and to the college as a whole. I’m referring to the role of the coach in the admissions process. We need to home in on the practice of athletic recruiting that can override the admissions process standards for colleges and universities across the country.

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American institutions should stop this practice entirely.

No more athletic recruiting at the expense of academics.

To many people, this will sound like blasphemy or insanity. I can already imagine the rebuttals about how “student athletes” (many would be more accurately described as “athlete students”) are essential to their colleges’ morale and esprit de corps. They are necessary to keep alumni donations up. They are necessary to maintain a competitive applicant pool.  Big athletics programs attract students from around the country. There are lots of reasons you hear, and no shortage of sentimentality behind them. 

Unfortunately, all of those reasons are wildly exaggerated, entirely subjective, or flatly false.

For a vast majority of schools, the connection between athletics performance and alumni giving is minimal to nonexistent. That college athletics programs make money for their schools is a myth (one that the $1-billion-a-year NCAA college sports market likes to perpetuate). In fact, student fees at colleges and universities across the country end up subsidizing wildly expensive sports programs — to the tune of billions of dollars.

You often hear that “athletes are great students who will get in anyway.” Fine. That just agrees with my thesis. If you don’t need sports to get into a school, then what’s the point of athletic recruiting? If it’s not needed, why do schools spend countless man-hours and millions of dollars across the country scouring high schools for the best talent in every sport, and then have a separate fast-track admissions process? 

We all know why. Most competitive schools bend (or abandon) their own academic standards in order to accept elite athletes. At elite schools, it is well known that there are courses designed to cater to certain sports teams. Geology 101 is notoriously called “rocks for jocks” in many programs. 

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There have been even more clever options at places like Stanford, where it was once possible for student athletes to take “beginning improvisation” and “Social Dances of North America” for an easy A. At UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014, a 145-word essay on Rosa Parks written at a third-grade level could get an athlete an A-. There are too many more examples of this than we can count; the subordination of academic ability to athletic prowess is the norm on so many campuses coast to coast.

Keep in mind, eliminating recruiting is by no means the same thing as eliminating college sports. Every school should field teams of their best athletes to entertain and inspire their fellow students. Elite athletes are exemplars of hard work and talent, just like academically gifted students. But the focus of admissions offices should be on taking the best students they can, and only those who can meet the overall standards of the institution. No more SAT or transcript passes for football or hockey players.

Does anyone really think that Michigan or Alabama or Ohio State wouldn’t have incredible sports teams just based on the talent pool at those schools? Big state schools have hundreds of thousands of students to choose from for their teams. And trust me, Harvard would have a great squash team even if it didn’t recruit the whole roster.

Universities should not be taxpayer-subsidized minor league sports franchises. They are supposed to be dedicated to teaching students and developing leaders and good citizens. The college recruitment of athletes that dumbs down or eliminates academic standards sends the wrong message about the academy’s core duty. This is an arms race that needs to stop.

A lot of people are losing faith in the dubious meritocracy of the college admissions system right now. Here is an opportunity to reset the fundamental goal of higher education back to education. The water polo teams will be just fine with walk-ons.

Buck Sexton is the cohost of the morning show “Rising” on Hill TV and the host of “The Buck Sexton Show” on radio and podcast. He is both a former officer at the Central Intelligence Agency and a former analyst at the New York City Police Department. You can follow him on Twitter @BuckSexton.