Harvard Cheating Scandal Speaks to the Tenuous Relationship Between Academics and College Athletics

Posted by Chris Johnson on September 12th, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

When word leaked nearly two weeks ago of a massive academic scandal at Harvard University, it was easy to overreact at the prospect of some of the nation’s brightest and most academically qualified students setting aside baseline expectations of academic honesty and integrity. After all, this is Harvard, long held as the putative gold standard of collegiate institutions, the dream school for practically every high school nerd with Ivy League aspirations. But when you dug into the details, which the New York Times provided one day after the allegations surfaced, none of it seemed particularly groundbreaking. Students enrolled in a 2012 spring Introduction to Congress class, which according to students had a reputation as one of the easiest classes at the school, colluded on take-home tests, questioned the fairness of graduate teaching assistants across sections and appealed to those assistants after reaching a consensus on unfamiliar exam terminology. There was a general understanding among enrollees that their actions were much less intentional than a product of a flawed conception of the school’s academic policies. All of which, at least as far as I could tell, undermined the severity of the transgressions. The only mildly surprising aspect of the story was the sheer number (125) of students implicated. It was a minor stain on Harvard’s sterling academic reputation, sure, but it certainly looked as if it would all dissipate in time.

The defining storyline of the 2012-13 for the Crimson will be the academic scandal that enveloped Curry and Casey (Photo credit: Getty Images).

The ongoing investigation has now crossed into the athletic realm, per Luke Winn of SI.Com, who reported early Tuesday morning that co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, two cornerstones of the Crimson’s 2012-13 Ivy League title defense efforts, are in jeopardy of missing their senior seasons. Casey decided to withdraw before Tuesday’s fall enrollment deadline. While he is yet to receive punishment for his alleged involvement in the widespread academic fraud, Casey ran the risk of losing his final year of eligibility by attending classes this fall if school administrators render an unfavorable verdict. Curry hasn’t made a final decision as of this writing, but is expected to follow Casey and forgo the upcoming academic year. In surrendering their eligibility this season, both players are expected to return for the 2013-14 season. A third men’s basketball player, along with a score of football players, could also face renounced or curtailed academic schedules this year.

In what was widely anticipated to be the Crimson’s best team in school history, losing two irreplaceable players just over a month away from the start of practice dramatically alters their outlook for the 2012-13 season. Curry, a second-team All-Ivy performer last season, is Harvard’s primary ball-handler and perimeter playmaker, while Casey, a lithe 6’7’’ forward, is the team’ leading scorer from last season and arguably its only established interior player. From a competitive standpoint, these are massive losses. But the sheer presence of the Crimson’s two co-captains and the leadership they provided is equally difficult to swallow. Depending on Curry’s decision, Harvard will still contend for a second consecutive Ivy League title, but it is no longer the league frontrunner. The silver lining lies in Harvard’s immense potential for the 2013-14 season, when Casey and Curry’s return plus the development of three-star forward Agunwa Okolie and arrivals of highly-touted big men Zena Edosomwan and Noah Allen provide all the elements for a transcendent campaign and the culmination of coach Tommy Amaker’s program-defining tenure. But the short-term prognosis is bleak, and this will no doubt temper expectations for the surging Crimson and at least partially stunt the programmatic momentum Amaker is trying to build in a long-dormant hoops climate.

More importantly, this case strikes at the nexus of collegiate athletics and the larger academic communities that house them. For participating members of revenue-producing sports teams at power conference schools, academics have always held some measure of underlying skepticism from impartial observers. The extra tutoring sessions, the loosened admissions standards, the constant hand-holding from academic counselors and professors – it’s hard for non-athletes to not come away thinking they don’t receive the same favorable treatment. Academic cheating, even in diluted and seemingly innocuous forms, is nothing we haven’t seen before. From athletes to valedictorians, it happens on most every college campus. Getting caught is more than anything else an indeterminate function of enforcement rigor and the discernability of rule breaks. What makes these allegations somewhat jarring is the environment in which they allegedly took place. Harvard is not your average academic institution, and Harvard basketball does not recruit average student-athletes. Without the ability to offer scholarships, and with arguably the toughest acceptance requirements in the country for prospective enrollees, Amaker faces inherent hurdles in recruiting. He’s overcome those hurdles and built a rising if not established Ivy program, borne of consistent prospect-hunting success, with big-name prizes like Edosomwan (The sweet-shooting forward held offers from UCLA, USC, Texas and Washington, among others, before committing to the Crimson). The fundamental fabric of the Crimson’s basketball formula is grounded in players who buy into the school’s academic mission for a unique basketball experience.

That association with academic excellence makes Curry and Casey’s dismissal nominally unsettling. These are two of many student caught in the crosshairs of a large academic scandal, elevated and singled out for their skills on the hardwood. If not for Harvard’s unparalleled academic stature, this might go down as a minor blip in the larger college hoops landscape. Because the alleged cheating took place in the golden halls of Harvard’s academic utopia and because it involves two players whose dismissals will have massive rippling effects not only for the Crimson’s season but the Ivy League title race, this story registers on a national level. The smoke is thick, but this case is more haze than actual substance.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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