Do Student Athletes Deserve Special Treatment?

In 2011, Stanford University endured a minor academic scandal when it came to light that student athletes were given access to a 'feeble class list.' The list contained courses thought by some to be exceptionally easy, which led to accusations of preferential treatment. This incident is only one of many critics point to as evidence of an un-level academic playing field in higher education.

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Unexpected Academic Duplicity

Stanford University is widely renowned for the academic rigor and excellence of its programs, which makes it an unlikely target for accusations of scholastic misdeeds. But that's exactly what the school faced in 2011 with the widespread publicizing of a list of reportedly 'easy' classes circulated among Stanford's student athletes. The list, one student remarked to The San Francisco Chronicle, included classes that were 'always chock-full of athletes and very easy A's.'

Stanford officials contend that academic advisers compiled the 'Courses of Interest' list to help student athletes identify classes that accommodate busy practice and competition schedules. And while the accusation is that the listed classes aren't as challenging as other offerings from the university, instructors with courses on the list have come forward to affirm that their classes are academically rigorous.

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Illuminating a Larger Issue

'Feeble class lists' are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to accusations of preferential treatment for student athletes. From the very beginning of the college application process, allowances are offered to prospective students who demonstrate athletic potential. These individuals may be subject to lower admissions standards than non-competing peers and many, of course, receive scholarships. These financial rewards often don't factor in academic promise, only the skills students bring to the field or court.

And privileges don't end there. Many schools offer special tutoring for athletes to help them earn grades that ensure eligibility for competition. These individuals also routinely have access to early registration so they can choose classes that won't conflict with athletics. In addition, professors are often expected to make accommodations for students missing class and exams because of competitions. Student athletes may even get free books and enhanced food programs. They can also benefit from university officials looking the other way or instituting only mild punishments when it comes to inappropriate or criminal behavior on campus.

However, student athletes often argue they are not given any special treatment. Due to their complicated schedules, it's often a necessity for their success both on and off the field to have additional support. The camaraderie and support amongst student athletes quickly ends if particular star athletes receive inflated grades or additional financial assistance on the side. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) closely monitors all competing athletic groups and colleges. They immediately address any such allegations to ensure fairness and integrity both on and off the field.

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Paid to Play?

While some decry student athletes' preferential treatment, others suggest that the privileges don't go far enough. Increasingly, people advocating on behalf of athletes suggest these students also deserve to be paid for their contributions on the athletic field. They point to the fact that many students get caught up in scandals for accepting booster funds in part because individuals' athletic commitments don't allow them to work as other students do. Athletes' supporters also point to the massive revenues student athletics bring into universities, suggesting a scholarship isn't adequate compensation for their service to the school.

Critics of student athlete privileges suggest that universities should first and foremost be in the business of education, and that the structure of preferential treatment in place already violates the founding purpose of institutions. To pay students for their athletic competition, they say, would be an abomination in higher ed that only serves to further dilute its true mission of advancing learning. With strong opinions on each side of the student athlete issue, the debate is sure to continue.

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