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24th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning
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The Unwilling Accomplice: Independent Study and Intercollegiate Athletics
Von V. Pittman
Director of Independent Study and Extension Associate Professor
University of Missouri
Big-Time Sports, Big-Time Cheating
Big-time collegiate sports and academic fraud have a long and unsavory association. The National
Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) has long maintained core standards for the admission of
scholarship athletes, as well as the requirement that those athletes make “reasonable academic progress”
in order to remain eligible for competition. For seemingly just as long, athletic departments, especially in
the NCAA’s Division I level, have looked for ways to use the various media of distance education to
avoid—or at least to bend—admissions and reasonable progress standards.
In the modern era of big-time, revenue-producing collegiate sports, coaching staffs and athletic directors
are required to “produce”—meaning win—in order to maintain their jobs or to advance their careers. As a
result, some among them have committed academic fraud in order to secure the admission of scholarship
athletes and to maintain their eligibility to compete. Too often, this has meant the misuse of courses
offered via distance education formats. Until fairly recently, this has meant cheating in independent study
courses. However, as the media of distance education have expanded, cases involving televised and
online courses have also come to light.
In the aftermath of a 1979 football scandal involving its renowned coach Frank Kush, Arizona State
University forbade scholarship athletes to use independent (correspondence) courses to meet the academic
progress standard. Faculty Athletic Representative Marion Jennings declared that when it came to student
athletes, she wanted ASU to “fly above the trees” (Shain, 1987). Within two years, ASU suspended eight
football players for using “bogus credit”—meaning independent study—to meet their “reasonable
progress” standard. This incident—the earliest I have discovered to date—almost certainly does not
represent the first time an athletic department or athletes misused distance education. And it was far from
the last.
Athletically inspired academic corruption has by no means been limited to distance education courses. In
athletics, as in all other aspects of the undergraduate experience, most cheating incidents take place in
conventional, on-campus, real-time classes. Given the numbers of students taking conventional courses,
as compared to distance education courses, this could not be otherwise. For example, it has not been
uncommon for tutors employed by athletic departments to create term paper mills. This sort of enterprise
at the University of Minnesota ended the career of basketball coach Clem Haskins.
Courses offered to students-at-a-distance possess some qualities that make them especially vulnerable to
athletes and to the coaches and athletic staffs whose incomes and careers are riding on their backs.
Traditionally, many distance education courses have been open to non-admitted students. Thus, students
could (and can) earn credits from other respected institutions, then transfer them to their “home”
universities. Secondly, independent study courses—in particular—allow students to enroll at any time
and—within reason—to set their own pace toward course completion. This flexibility can be helpful
when a student needs a last-minute infusion of credit. Next, coaches and others have frequently tampered
with the integrity of the examination process. Such actions have, over the years, provoked increased
scrutiny of distance education, seemingly based on the premise that academic fraud in college sports is
caused by teaching formats, rather than coaches and athletes.
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author(s) and the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning
24th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning
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“Prop 48”: The Law of Unintended Consequences
A huge scandal that would involve nearly fifty major college athletic programs and hundreds of
scholarship athletes began to develop in the late 1980s. Because of an NCAA “reform” measure, known
as Proposition 48, athletic programs could no longer recruit athletes who had not earned a high school
diploma. Colleges could continue to recruit marginal students, but they could not allow them to compete
until they had established satisfactory academic records.
By the early 1990s, coaches from around the country had devised a means of coping with “Prop 48.”
They began to “park” or “warehouse” students in community colleges, then enroll them in independent
study courses, primarily from Southeastern University, a small denominational school in Lakeland,
Florida. Because Southeastern had designed its courses primarily to serve its own Assemblies of God
missionaries, security was unusually lax. An informal network of coaches quickly spread the word about
this vulnerable source of legitimate college credit that could be earned at a distance. Coaches not only
tipped off their friends about this way of getting around the eligibility rules, they faxed examinations and
lesson sheets all over the country.
The scheme came apart when Sports Illustrated published a detailed exposé of the practice of qualifying
athletes—most often basketball players—on the basis of Southeastern University courses. According to
the story, coaches took an active role in the cheating. However, Sports Illustrated would conclude—as
would the NCAA—that Southeastern’s involvement had resulted from naïveté, rather than corruption
(Wolff & Yaeger, 1995). While some internal investigations had begun earlier, the Sports Illustrated story
provoked many more. Then, the NCAA began a round of investigations. As a result, institutions were put
on probation, athletes were disqualified from competition, and coaches were fired. Some investigations
led to federal charges such as wire fraud, mail fraud, and conspiracy. A few coaches were indicted and
At Baylor University, the NCAA found that coaches had arranged for fraudulent academic credits,
provided impermissible assistance in course work, and supplied players with term papers and advance
copies of exams. A New Mexico State University investigation revealed that assistant coaches had
illegally acted as test proctors, or forged the credentials of others not qualified for the task. At both places,
assistant coaches were fired and/or convicted, while head coaches survived (Wolff & Yaeger, 1995). At
Texas Tech University, one athlete first learned that he was enrolled in a correspondence course from
Southeastern when his grade arrived. He sued the university for fraud (Kincade, 1998).
Tarnished “Scholar-Athletes”
A particularly spectacular case came to light at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. When Coach Rollie
Massimino learned that the team’s best player, J. R. Rider, had earned only nine credit hours in the most
recent year, it became necessary to register him for a fifteen-hour load in the summer so that he could
play in the next season. The instructor of one correspondence course in which he was enrolled
complained to the press that the athletic department had applied unrelenting pressure to pass Rider in her
course. The pressure did not relent even when her husband was hospitalized with a serious illness. She
finally gave Rider a passing grade, she said, even though he had not turned in all of the required work
(Rhoden, 1993; Taylor & Kirshenbaum, 1993).
At the University of Missouri, a player named Ricky Clemons became notorious when he was sentenced
to jail for beating up his girlfriend. The story of his misbehavior provoked local Columbia newspapers to
investigate just how it was that someone with Clemons’s academic background had been admitted to the
state’s flagship institution. He had shown up in Columbia with a transcript showing twenty-four credit
hours earned over the summer. This appeared to be an extremely heavy load for a marginal student in an
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author(s) and the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning
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abbreviated term. He had enrolled for twelve hours at Barton County Community College, in Kansas,
then three hours in one independent study course from Adams State College, in Colorado, and the final
nine hours via three Brigham Young University independent study courses. On the basis of this
apparently miraculous term, the University of Missouri admitted Clemons for the fall 2002 semester.
(Gregorian, Kohler, Ratcliffe, Holloway, & Coats, 2003).
Depositions related to Clemons’s assault case indirectly provoked a federal investigation. This inquiry led
to the discovery that Barton County Community College was literally in the business of providing
fraudulent academic credentials to athletes. Besides falsifying credit from their own school, they sought
out independent courses they believed that either students could pass, or from schools whose exam
security they believed they could overcome. Clemons’s course from Adams State, for example, was one
of the rare offerings that required no examination. And, at the time, Brigham Young University allowed
coaches to proctor examinations, which opened the door to various means of cheating, from allowing
students to use books and take extra time, to taking their exams for them. As a result of the federal
investigation, seven Barton County coaches and the athletic director pled guilty to—or were convicted
of—federal fraud charges. The president was fired (“Four Going to Jail,” 2006).
Business as Usual
The courses mentioned to this point were particularly egregious and they drew a great deal of attention, at
least on a regional basis. But they were not anomalies. This presentation will include many cases of the
fraudulent use of distance education courses in the service of intercollegiate athletics. The University of
Kansas gave illegal help on correspondence courses to several students in 2005. At Nicholls State
College, the president was outraged when he learned that twenty football players were enrolled in a single
BYU course in order to overcome a deficiency. University of Georgia assistant basketball coach Jim
Harrick, Jr., enrolled a prospect in two independent study courses at an Illinois Community College and
did all of the work himself. The prospect denied having even opened a book (Parsons, 2003).
Administrators and faculty at numerous universities found the continued misuse of distance education
embarrassing. Their impulse was often to blame not the coaches, but the courses. The president of Texas
Tech University said, “The final exam is problematic when it is being taken at a site other than the
institution that is offering the courses” (Pittman, 1996). He did not add that the exam was “problematic”
because his coaches were committing fraud. The NCAA considered eliminating independent study as an
option for earning credits toward athletic eligibility. This failed only because many universities no longer
mark course formats on transcripts. Some educators have said that the regional accrediting associations
increase their scrutiny of distance course delivery. Thus, the usual reaction is to “blame the victim.” No
one has suggested that accrediting associations increase their scrutiny of athletic programs. No one has
suggested students should be prevented from engaging in intercollegiate sports because that can lead to
cheating (Pittman, 1996).
Sadly, the story never ends. New technologies are no challenge to those who would commit academic
fraud. Less than a year ago, Florida State University discovered that fifteen scholarship-athletes—on
seven teams—had received illegitimate assistance in an online music history course (“Bowden Shoots
Down Speculation,” 2007). This is the latest major case of athletics-related cheating in distance education
courses. It will not be the last.
Bowden shoots down speculation Florida State might have to forfeit wins. (2007, December 20).
Associated Press. Retrieved December 21, 2007, from
Copyright 2008 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
Duplication or redistribution prohibited without written permission of the
author(s) and the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning
24th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning
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Four going to jail for fraud at community college. (2006, October 2). Retrieved from
Gregorian, V., Kohler, J., Ratcliffe, H., Holloway, C., & Coats, B. (2003, February 2). From bounce to
jarring bounce. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. D1.
Kincade, J. (1998). Court tackles former Texas Tech football player’s lawsuit for a loss. Texas
Entertainment and Sports Law Journal, 7(1), 5.
Parsons, Keith. (2003, February 27). Former Georgia player alleges violations by Jim Harrick Jr. USA
Today. Retrieved March 10, 2003, from
Pittman, V. (1996). Charges lead Southeastern College to end correspondence study program. The Study
Guide, (3), 5.
Rhoden, W. C. (1993, April 2). When the page can’t be turned. The New York Times, p. B9.
Shain, Jeffrey T. (1987, September 5). United Press International. Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis Academic
Taylor, P. & Kirshenbaum, J. (1993, March 22). Discredited. Sports Illustrated, 78(11), 11.
Wolff, A. & Yaeger, D. (1995, August 7). Credit risk. Sports Illustrated, 83, 46–48, 53–55.
About the Presenter
Von Pittman has directed distance education programs at Washington State University, The University
of Iowa, and The University of Missouri. He has also taught courses via various distance education
media. He has written numerous peer reviewed journal articles and anthology chapters, and is the author
of Surviving Graduate School Part Time. Pittman serves as a peer-reviewer for the Higher Learning
Commission on matters pertaining to distance education. His fictional treatment of distance education,
“Covering the Spread,” published in The Study Guide, was recently awarded first prize in the short story
competition of the Missouri Writers Guild.
Address: 136 Clark Hall
University of Missouri
Columbia, Missouri, 65211-4200
Phone: 573.882.6431
Copyright 2008 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
Duplication or redistribution prohibited without written permission of the
author(s) and the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning