Yesterday I had a brief Twitter exchange with friend of the blog @b1rky (I deleted my part, since I didn’t feel like getting in a debate with 14 different people at the time) that stemmed from these two tweets:

I took some offense to this, having worked through the NCAA experience myself, and I hope Birky would agree he’s gone a touch heavy on the hyperbole here.

His tweets came in the wake of the information that one of the Toronto Maple Leafs prospects, Mark Everson, along with three other players from Harvard, are being forced to “take a year off” in the wake of a plagiarism scandal.


In August, the university launched an investigation into students who were enrolled in a government class for allegedly plagiarizing answers or inappropriately collaborating on the class’ final exam, which was take home.

First things first: Harvard assigns “take-home tests?” Or rather, “take home finals?” Is there a damn thing you can’t find out on the internet right now? Is using your buddies to come up with the correct answers any different? I mean, I don’t know the full story of this particular case – and this article isn’t meant to be about that particular case – just…Geez.

Anyway, I attended the University of Alaska Anchorage – not exactly Harvard, I know – and here was my experience from an education standpoint:

The requirements for getting any degree are zero percent different from any other student. You still write papers, attend labs, take tests, blah blah blah. There’s no help in that regard, which I probably didn’t need to point out. The main difference, really, is absences. As a player on an Alaskan team, we flew out on Wednesdays to get to the lower 48 states, so we could wake up there Thursday, get a practice in and shake the legs out, and be ready for Friday. This was every other week, so clearly, we were missing a decent chunk of our classes during the season.

We had some help in course scheduling to make sure we didn’t have classes to attend of Fridays (what with it being game day and all). As you get towards being a senior, it’s more and more difficult to pick-and-choose (sometimes they’re only offered once, at a certain time), so you can’t always have it your way.

Rene Bourque, shown here trembling in fear after giving me the puck

On those road Thursdays, there was an allotted time for classwork. You were confined to your hotel room from __ until __ (usually a couple hours), and coaches physically came around and checked up on you. With the internet as it is today, you can always avoid work, but most guys were good about actually chipping away at stuff. If a player was missing a test, the exam was submitted to an assistant coach, who kept that player sequestered and semi-supervised until they were finished.

As with all Universities, some professors are more lenient than others, and the players on the team are good about helping you when you’re doing your scheduling. “Don’t take statistics from Mr. Smith, he doesn’t allow that many absences, Mrs. Jacobs is a season ticket holder at the games and tends to grade easier,” etc, etc.

One thing the team did pay for was tutors – you could probably get one for every class if you wanted. But with a midday practice schedule (we had a three hour block of ice, usually used 90 minutes as a team and 30 alone, depending on schedule), hour gym sessions, classes and a social life, most guys only got them out of desperation.

Players cheat, as students cheat. The difference is as a player, you have 25 built-in friends from day one, and guys have taken a lot of the same classes when you consider there’s four years of students in the dressing room. “Yeah, I still have that paper,” “Sure, I still have those answers.” I will say, it’s not some epidemic – most guys are very good about doing their work, and I doubt there’s a much higher plagiarism rate in sports than out of them – but it does exist.

Teams require that you keep a passing GPA to play (the requirements from school to school are different, but that’s the baseline), and some guys simply can’t hack it. Usually once you fall below a 2.5 grade-point-average you’re required to check into study hall for a daily hour. Still, in my time in Alaska I saw at least three players be ineligible to play for the team due to poor grades. Not every talented hockey player is smart. Not every talented hockey player has a good work ethic. Usually being at least one of those two can help you overcome the other in the classroom, but guys that have neither struggle.

What I never saw, was a person willing to “do our work for us,” or a teacher giving a player the “wink-nod no problem” grade without the guy actually doing the required work. Maybe it happens when the sports are bigger, like in college football. Those guys are borderline celebrities, and I could see some professor letting a Tim Tebow-type get away with the educational equivalent of murder (not that Tim would let them, the pure soul that he is).

But for your average college hockey player, life is just busy. It’s not insanely hard, the education is truly earned, it’s not really all that crazy. It’s just…busy.

It was also some of the best, and informative years of my life, and I’d hate to have people assume that because I was on the hockey team, I didn’t earn the grades I received.

Comments (20)

  1. There’s also no guarantee that after 4 years of hockey and school, a player is eligible to graduate, right?

    • No, not at all. Lots still have a few credits to finish up.

      • This is where I feel Canadian University hockey and its student athletes have an advantage — CIS and ACAC allow five years of playing eligibility, so players can finish up their 4 year degrees in that fifth year if need be, instead of skipping town with an unfinished degree and perhaps a pileup of student loan debt that doesn’t seem justified without that pricey piece of paper.

  2. “Rene Bourque, shown here trembling in fear after giving me the puck”

    You mean after your slew-foot?

    Kidding…but it does look like it. haha.

  3. Off topic – I love the Sea Wolves jerseys.

  4. Interesting read. Well done.

  5. I know at a certain school with the colors “maze and blue”, they have classes reserved for student athletes. These classes usually are very flexible in the hours and the amount of work required (geology was something like rocks for rock stars).

    Still, good read!

  6. As another NCAA Div I student athlete, I agree with what you say. You forgot to mention that even though there are guys on the basketball team who have a GPA of zero the last spring semester of their college career because the grades don’t come out until after the season and March Madness, athletes still, on average, have a higher GPA than the average student body. I wish my team had a network of old copies of tests like the fraternities and sororities had, but I probably benefited more from that not being the case.

  7. Do you know what happens to normal Harvard plagiarizer(s) ? They get kicked out of school. . . Forever.

    • That’s a good point worth pursuing. I don’t really know the ins-and-outs of that particular scandal though. Again, wasn’t about that specifically.

  8. Good post JB, I always find it interesting to find out the emphasis that each school puts on academics. Two points though:

    1) Take home exams sound easy, and I’m not sure how they are at Harvard, but I know the take home exams I had in law school were so much more difficult than regular exams. Generally, you only had a very tight window in which to access the exam online, then do the exam and submit it (usually about 24 hours). There were also intense word count limits as well. What makes them tougher was the level of depth expected by professors. They basically looked at it like a 24 hour open note exam, ie. they expected every single thing to be included and perfect, and you know someone would be staying up for a day straight to make sure they did it, and that would screw over everyone else who didn’t do that (so everyone did).

    2) The school I used to work at also had pretty strict grade and attendance policies. Players had to be above a 3.0 or they had to go to daily study hall. And unexcused absences resulted in pretty harsh punishments from the team, including plenty of players suspended for a game by the team for skipping school. Cheating never happened while I was there, but it would have resulted in immediate dismissal.

  9. So as a Bostonian with some friends at Harvard, here’s what happened:

    There was a course that was known among athletes to be exceptionally easy in part because there were take-home exams that they all did together. This reputation meant that there was a high concentration of athletes in that course, so this is an issue for all their sports teams– men’s basketball lost both captains. The professor was one that was hands-off and not putting much effort into teaching, so hey, why not.

    Also, it is important to remember that for Harvard and other Ivy League athletes, there is no such thing as an athletic scholarship. You keep your grades up or you are toast. It really isn’t exactly like most NCAA programs. (Please note I’m not a Harvard sycophant; I think there are smart kids and athletes everywhere. But the Ivy League does place a premium on academic performance in a way other NCAA programs don’t.)

    As far as penalties go, it is at the discretion of the University… sort of.

    Officially, their policy states: “Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including requirement to withdraw from the College.”

    They don’t get kicked out of school automatically forever. They’re considered on a case-by-case basis.

    I’m led to believe that for a first offense, these students usually get a failing grade, a note on their transcript, and a one-year suspension. There are many student athletes who withdrew so that they could preserve that NCAA eligibility year.

    Grading practices and conflicts of interest and professor oversight of exams and whatnot are a big big issue at Harvard right now.

    Hope this clarifies a bit.

  10. Oh, and fun fact:

    The course was Government 1310: Introduction to Congress.

    I don’t know why that made me smirk.

    And even more: “a university administrator sent an e-mail message advising fall athletes who might be involved in the cheating scandal to consider taking a leave in order to preserve their eligibility.”

  11. I know some of the guys from a local college team here that also help coach our house league teams. I’m constantly amazed that they can go to school, play college hockey, and do part time jobs coaching to earn a few bucks all at the same time. In my experience they are incredibly solid people that just work damn hard.
    I’m not sure most of them are studying to be nuclear physicists though… That would be interesting to know Justin – what is the average player studying… there is definitely an assumption that they are doing sports related courses or poli-sci or something…

    • My university has a DI hockey program and most of the guys on our team were studying for some sort of business degree, which my friends in the business school insisted wouldn’t have been a cakewalk. A few of the better guys were getting Kinesiology and sports studies degrees, and took intro ice skating classes. Also, the backup goalie was a civil engineering major.

  12. I would also like to point out that to say that birky is painting all student-athletes with a pretty broad brush. I played DIII sports and, other than absences from class, we got no special treatment – no tutors, no easy classes. We were there to learn, and if we could play sports, that was cool.

    It irritates me to see such broad generalizations about student-athletes.

  13. Sorry Bourne, yes it was a broad brush, but it’s not a completely untrue painting of athletics in college.

    I was at Wisconsin the same time you were at UAA and even the chick I met on the women’s rowing team got the test answers dead handed to her in the “athlete only” study session of a lit class we shared – they may have taken the exams in the same room as I was but they were far more intimately familiar with the content of the exam before being handed a blank one. Secondly, I was filling credits with a theater class the football players took – there are employees the University pays to check to make sure they show up to class, secondly… you know what, don’t need to get to second, that should say enough.

    On top of that, the very fact that you called your example instructors “Mr” and “Mrs” bothers me. You were at a 4 year University. You’re instructors were Doctors. They held PhDs. They spent anywhere from 7 years to a decade in school, being paid just enough to buy shitty food and put $300 towards rent while working almost every waking hour they aren’t in classes towards a project they hoped would pan out well enough to be accepted by their advisors by the time they were nearly 30. I would never dream of calling a professor “Mr” anything. ever. That would be massively disrespectful to them.

  14. Came across this yesterday, seems relevant:

    “In just 10 days, academically deficient players could earn three credits and an easy “A” from Western Oklahoma State College for courses like “Microcomputer Applications” (opening folders in Windows) or “Nutrition” (stating whether or not the students used vitamins). The Chronicle quoted one Big Ten academic adviser as saying, “You jump online, finish in a week and half, get your grade posted, and you’re bowl-eligible.”

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