Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Gov 1310 Cheating Allegations Do Not Prove Athlete Privilege

The news could reignite a contentious decades-old debate about athletes and academic integrity in the Ivy League. --Bill Pennington
What would be more accurate to say is that Pennington himself wants this debate to be reignited, which is why he has opened his argument about an incidence of alleged academic cheating by citing two very different events: Harvard basketball's Top 25 ranking and NCAA tournament appearance.
The segue was made available to Pennington by what he refers to as "published reports [that] implicated the co-captains of the basketball team in a widespread academic cheating scandal."
All we know for a fact is that co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry have chosen to withdraw. In other words, we know that they accepted the punishment, while it has not yet been determined whether or not they committed the crime.
And just because Casey and Curry are the only names to have been released doesn't mean that they are the only ones implicated. In fact, it was a shared typo by members of a different team that led to the investigation in the first place (if you greatly desire to know which one, the internet is at your fingertips).
Anyway, a couple thoughts:
Wrongdoing is not a sign of privilege. Only getting away with wrongdoing is. And Harvard's athletes are not getting away with anything.
When news leaked that athletes were among those being investigated, many responded with admonitions of Harvard's supposedly overprivileged athletes. But it doesn't take great privilege to make a mistake--which I believe is what students did--or to do something while knowing that it was morally wrong. Unfortunately, these are two areas where there really is equal opportunity (if only that were so for other more aspirational fields).
Now if Harvard decided that punishment shouldn't apply for the athletes, that would mean that privilege has gone too far.
Instead, we are seeing just the opposite: athletes are essentially being punished more than non-athletes. First of all, their absences are much easier to notice publicly, especially when they are well-known athletes such as Casey and Curry. Secondly, the price of being wrong--on betting on one's innocence and then being found guilty--is much higher for athletes. Non-athlete students forced to withdraw will take a year off from college and will be able to return to the same place they left. There is no NCAA governing student organizations, no losing of one's final year of eligibility, no missing out on the last chance (for many) to compete in the defining (for many) part of one's college career. Athletes, here, are not privileged.
Now, part of this article suggests that athletes act entitled, a claim which is highly subjective. In my experience with Harvard's athletes, which includes four years of varsity rowing and writing for The Crimson on many sports (football, baseball, women's hockey, men's crew, skiing and men's golf were my beats, and I wrote stories for many others), I have never found that to be the case. But again, this is highly subjective, so if you want to believe that athletes act with a sense of entitlement, I can't really prove you wrong. If you believe that cheating on a test qualifies as acting with a sense of entitlement, that's more than fair. But acting in a privileged manner is very different from having actual privilege conferred upon you. And the difference is critical.
If you have a problem with athletes taking certain courses, you should first object to Harvard offering these courses.
"Some athletes are here working hard, but others avoid academic challenges. You know you won’t find them in a deductive logic course, but you will find them in a much less taxing sociology course. They sometimes exist apart, and collectively gravitate to the same majors, like sociology or government. It’s known." --Patrick Lane, a senior
Now, this part is largely personal opinion, but if you find it problematic that certain students are taking certain classes, shouldn't you instead be upset that the University is offering these courses in the first place? When courses and concentrations are created, it's presumably because the institution considers the study of these things to be a valuable use of time. Are students at fault for agreeing? One of the things I loved about Harvard is its breadth of course offerings and the relative freedom it allows students to study what they want from Folklore and Mythology to Government to History and Literature to Engineering. As a concentration, Government has embraced this philosophy. Government has often been faulted for its relatively loose requirements, but I don't see this as a flaw because it allows students to find what interests them and pursue those things. Many of my favorite classes were challenging and rewarding ones I found in the Government department, which is why I took four government classes my senior year despite having filled my requirements the year before. (In addition to Introduction to Congress, I took Political Psychology, Social Policy in Brazil, and Contemporary British Politics.) Harvard considers students mature enough to make their own decisions about courses, including how difficult they want their academic schedule to be. If this is a problem, take it up with the University and explain to them why these courses should not be taught on campus. Don't fault students for taking advantage of what is already there.

Acknowledging my inherent biases, I have no interest in discussing whether or not I consider any of the Government 1310 students to be guilty or what I think the punishments should be. That's not my job. Similarly, I will not use this space to argue over the merit of recruited athletes. It's an issue with which I am more than willing to engage, but not here. Because this is an issue of academics, not athletics.

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