TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Majoring in football? What are your college’s athletes (quote-unquote) “studying?”

Records dribbling into the public domain as part of an NCAA probe of the University of North Carolina athletic program have disclosed that athletes flocked to particular courses that may not have been especially demanding. “Not especially demanding” in the sense that these classes didn’t have tests. Or meetings. Or any type of actual existence.

The phenomenon of athletes congregating in easy-A courses is so widely documented that it’s even been given a name: “Clustering.” Not every cluster indicates courses that are fake, but every one is worth asking about.

Getting started on this story can be as easy as thumbing through a document that every major college willingly hands out: The media guide for sports programs. Because athletes’ majors are identified in their media-guide bios, journalists have easily tracked the majors in which eyebrow-raising numbers of players concentrate.

That’s what USA Today did in an eye-opening look at the practice of “majoring in eligibility,” finding that athletes were so over-represented in certain majors — liberal arts at Colorado State, management at Georgia Tech — as to be statistically implausible.

For any journalist interested in the academic integrity of college sports, a must-have document is the “NCAA Certification Self Study” report. It’s a document that each college must compile and submit to the NCAA periodically (about once every 10 years), and it is both a guaranteed source of immediate news stories and a priceless reference of sources and documents that may lead to future stories.

Among the details that the self study report will contain:

  • How often the college waives admission standards to accept athletes who don’t meet the institution’s normal grade and test-score minimums, and how those “special admission” athletes end up performing in school.
  • What special tutoring and other academic assistance and perks are made available exclusively to athletes. (A common one is priority registration, ahead of the non-athletes.)
  • The gap between financial support for women’s and men’s sports, and any measures the college is taking to narrow that gap.
The most recent self study should be available from the athletic department on request, and many (even from private colleges) are available online — here are some examples from Washington StateIowa State and Vanderbilt.

Obtaining the report is a great start, but it’s only a start — reviewing the self study report will tell you about what university committees participated in the study and when they met. For the truly inquisitive, each of those committee members and each of those meetings is itself a potential source of additional public records.

The NCAA also publishes an online database of the academic progress of athletes that is searchable by school or by conference. It’s a quick source of statistics about how student-athletes are performing academically, including graduation rates by sport. As a bonus, it’s even searchable by the name of the head coach, so when your school hires a hot-shot coach from another program, you can quickly background the newcomer to report the rate of academic progress at his past workplaces.