Labor, school athletics and fraud

By: Tonya Mead, CFE, CHFI, PI, MBA,MA Educational Psychology

This Labor Day, I am reading about Mizzou’s Logan six game suspension for academic fraud. I wonder if there is an intersection between labor, fraud and academics? Academic fraud in college athletics  is nothing new.  Inside Higher Education reported that “the NCAA punished Division I colleges and universities at least 15 times for academic fraud in the last decade.”

What is academic fraud?

The NCAA defines an academic misconduct violation as any act the violates the school’s  academic misconduct policies and procedures. Some of the guiding questions are:

  1. Was there an alteration or falsification  of  transcript or academic record?
  2. Was school staff or booster club members involved?
  3. [Did the academic fraud enable] student athletes to receive aid or compete while ineligible? (see NCAA).

If it is a little difficult to visualize academic fraud, here are just a few examples of its  manifestation:

  • tutors taking exams by proxy for student athletes
  • tutors completing courses for student athletes
  • athletics programs steering student athletes to independent study courses misidentified as lecture courses
  • college counselors and/or professors teaching lecture courses directed toward student athletes that fail to meet the requirements (research paper)
  • school programs offering ‘no show’ classes for college credit for use by student athletes
  • athletic administrators segregating athletes into “athlete only’ course sections
  • guidance counselors (non-faculty members) grading of student athlete work

Why is this important?

CNN and whistleblower, Mary Willingham, observed that “a shocking number of functionally illiterate and ill-prepared student athletes” attend prestigious public schools with few prospects for future career success upon graduation.

In fact, as mentioned in my book, the Chair, Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill faced fraud charges for teaching 200 “no show” classes over a 15-year period [1].

Complainants in a January 2015 lawsuit filed against UNC- Chapel Hill and NCAA “seek unspecified damages and ask for the formation of an independent commission to review, audit, assess and report on academic integrity in NCAA- member athletic programs and certify member-school curricula as providing comparable educations and educational opportunities to athletes and non-athletes alike” [1].

Big money in college sports

According to Business Insider, “the 231 NCAA Division I schools with data available generated a total of $9.15 billion in revenue during the 2015 fiscal year.”

Perceived unfairness attributes to fraud

Fukuwawa and colleagues examined perceived unfairness related to consumer insurance. To address the imbalance, he  found that consumers would routinely exaggerate claims when it was perceived that the company was unfair.  Cornelissen, Himmler, and Koenig, in a separate study found that the perceptions of unfair CEO compensation “is associated with up to 20% higher levels of absenteeism, even after conditioning on health and an exhaustive set of individual characteristics.”  [2]. When CEO pay (or in this case, school sports budget, personnel and salaries) is exorbitant in relation to the average employee salary (in this instance, student athletes), CEOs are more prone to very high risk decision making, short-sightedness, and driven toward short-term performance.

Related articles on fraud in education

Other labor causes

In reflecting upon the plight of student athletes, I look to the anti- child labor anti child trafficking, efforts in the US and abroad. Are the dangers of exploitation any different?  While the age of college athletes range from 18 to 22 years (and in some cases older), according to Continue to Learn, the causes of child labor are “poverty, limited access to education, repression of workers’ rights, and limited prohibitions.” There are many similarities.

Recognizing the vulnerabilities of young adults, even the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allows parents to add or keep their children on their health insurance policy until they turn 26 years old.  The Young Adult Coverage “lets children join or remain on a parent’s plan even if they are. not financially dependent on their parents.”

Pay student athletes movement

The pay student movement was started by Jeffrey Kessler, an “antitrust and labor lawyer [who] represented the plaintiff in Jenkins v. NCAA, one of the premier lawsuits contending a college athlete’s right to compensation, [was] filed in 2014. (see ESPN, para 3). In light of the big money, academic fraud, allegations of criminal fraud, and anecdotal information that colleges do not aid in the preparation of student athletes for college readiness and career success, the pay student athletes movement may equalize the playing field.

Students impacted by academic fraud may leave college academically unprepared, but will have earned enough money to sustain them while they gain their footing in the world outside of sports. Additionally, equitable pay may improve their socio-emotional well-being. Research shows that the perception of good wages and good benefits bring intangibles too. Workers are happier and healthier.

Related articles fraud in higher education


In the old days, collegewas once seen as a place where adolescents went to explore courses and majors before settling on a job and career, often well after graduating.” With the embrace of the pay student athletes labor movement, colleges may be less motivated to treat student athletes as chattel (ripe for fraud, waste and abuse) and more inclined to treat them as they are young adult student athletes: valuable assets worthy of molding and cultivating.

Resources (non hyperlinked)

  1. S. Sanders, “Report Says UNC Grade Boosting Scandal Involved Fake Classes,” National Public Radio (NPR). October 23, 2014. Available:
  2. T. Cornelissen, O. Himmler, and T. Koenig, “Perceived Unfairness in CEO Compensation and Work Morale,” Discussion Paper No. 435., November 25, 2009, Leibniz University, Hanover.

Tonya J. Mead, CFE, CHFI, PI, MBA, MA, Certified K-12 Administrator and School Psychologist is author of Fraud in Education: Beyond the Wrong Answer and president of Shared Knowledge, LLC