Negligent Admissions: Was It Unethical To Recruit Marcus Johnson?

It was 1978 when Jason started his first year as the head of the athletic department for Quandary University, a private college in the U.S. Midwest that competes in Division I NCAA athletics. Jason heard of a star high school athlete named Marcus Johnson from Kansas City, a 6’9” center who averaged 21 points and 20 rebounds a game. His dominance on the court, however, did not translate to the classroom. While his “C” average in high school was definitely below average for Quandary University, Jason was more concerned about his American College Testing (ACT) score. He scored a 9 out of 36. The average at Quandary University in 1978 was 23.2.

When Jason expressed concerns about Johnson’s ability to handle the academic workload at Quandary University, the basketball head coach winked and said, “Don’t worry, we can give him ‘special tutoring.’” Jason had heard rumors of special athletic department tutors that would do assignments and take tests for the student athletes and this helped confirm it.

“We’ll just enroll him in goof-off classes like ceramics, marksmanship, and theory of basketball,” said the head coach. When Jason expressed concern that those classes didn’t contribute toward a degree, the head coach replied, “Hey, I was hired to win basketball games; I’ve never received a bonus based on graduation rates. Besides, Marcus Johnson is a poor black kid. This will be the best thing to ever happen to him.”

Because of his high school GPA and ACT score, Johnson needed to be admitted as a “special permission” student. The head basketball coach said Johnson would play an integral role on the team and asked Jason to appeal to the academic vice president so Johnson could attend Quandary University.

Assume that Jason reluctantly went along with the head basketball coach and got Marcus Johnson admitted to Quandary University. It’s now four years later, and just as Jason feared, Marcus Johnson did not perform well academically. Even with the “special help” on tests and homework, his freshman GPA was 1.6, and it only went downhill from there. After four years at Quandary University, Johnson’s overall language skills were that of a fourth grader. To make matters worse, he turned out to not be the basketball star that he was recruited to be. He started in only 9 games and averaged only 4 points per game.

One evening, while Jason was looking over the scouting reports for the upcoming year’s entering recruits, an angry, 6’9” man barged into his office. Jason immediately recognized him as Marcus Johnson. He was upset because after four years he was nowhere near earning a degree. “When you guys recruited me the deal was I play basketball for you and you educate me; I fulfilled my end of the bargain so now it’s time for you to do the same,” he exclaimed.

Background Information

College coaches face incredible pressure to win from alumni and the institution. Consequently, they must recruit great players, players for whom there is a lot of competition. It is no surprise that this environment can lead to recruitment violations. A Southwestern Louisiana (Lafayette) assistant coach forged the signature of a high school principal to allow a recruit to attend (Carson, 2013). In 1999, a University of Minnesota academic advisor admitted to accepting extra money from the coach to write over 400 papers for men’s basketball players (Top 10 Infamous NCAA Sanctions, 2010). The 2008 Memphis Tigers’ men’s basketball team was sanctioned for allegedly arranging another person to take Derrick Rose’s SAT test (Top 10 Infamous NCAA Sanctions, 2010). In the 90s, four University of Michigan basketball players received a combined $600,000 from one booster (Top 10 Infamous NCAA Sanctions, 2010).

It’s also no surprise that this intense competition for star recruits can lead to coaches making exaggerated claims. College basketball Coach Larry Brown said, “Every kid I recruited for college felt that he had an opportunity to play in the NBA and I liked them to have those expectations. So they give themselves—their trust—to you from day one, hoping to reach that goal” (Sperber, 2001). The odds of an entering, freshman NCAA basketball player going on to play in the NBA is less than 1%.[1]

Evaluate the decisions that Quandary University was confronted with. Should they have admitted Marcus Johnson? Provided that Marcus Johnson was recruited and did not receive a degree, what, if anything, should the college do?

Discussion Questions

1. Athletic programs can generate a lot of money for a college—and also help its reputation, which results in a higher demand from prospective students. In 2017 both Texas A&M and the University of Texas reported athletics revenues over $200 million (Berkowitz, 2018). Balancing the interest of the athletic department with that of the academic reputation of a school is not easy. What guidelines do you think would be a best practice for a college to implement regarding these competing interests?

2. If you agree with the argument that colleges should do everything allowed in the rules to get the best teams, would you recommend that the NCAA change its rules to protect against the exploitation of academically underqualified student athletes? Anticipate potential criticism your policy might receive.

3. If you applied to Quandary University as a non-athlete and weren’t accepted and then found out Marcus Johnson was accepted with academic credentials far inferior to yours, what effects do you think this would have on your view of higher education and student athletes?

4. Do you think Quandary University is responsible for what happened to Marcus Johnson? And if so, how far does that responsibility extend? Was the private elementary school tuition and $30,000 settlement adequate?

5. Creighton (the real-life Quandary University) was, and still is, an overwhelmingly white college (Fields, 2017). If 97% of the students at your college were of a different race than you, what effects might this have on your education and overall college experience?

6. How would you evaluate a similar situation where a corporation placed underrepresented minorities into positions they were ill-equipped to perform just to boost their minority reporting statistics?

Notes and References

Asher, M. (1985, June 27). NCAA reformers push proposition 48. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Berkowitz, S. (2018, January 29). Texas A&M athletics department joins Texas in $200 million operating revenue club. USA Today. Retrieved from

Carson, D. (2013, January 25). Shady recruiting 101. Bleacher Report. Retrieved from

Coelho, P. R., McClure, J. E., & Spry, J. A. (2003). The social responsibility of corporate management: A classical critique. American Journal of Business, 18, 15–24.

Davis, T. (1992). Ross v. Creighton University: Seventh Circuit recognition of limited judicial regulation of intercollegiate athletics? Southern Illinois University Law Journal, 17, 85–115.

Fields, S. K. (2017). The presence and absence of race: Ross v. Creighton University. In Billy J. Hawkins, Akilah R. Career-Francique, & Joseph N. Cooper (Eds.), Critical race theory: Black athletic sporting experiences in the United States (pp. 171–191). Palgrave Macmillan US.

Grady, W. (1992, April 28). Ross settles lawsuit with Creighton. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from

Ross v. Creighton University, 957 F.2d 410 (7th Cir., 1992).

Ross v. Creighton University, 740 F. Supp. 1319 (N.D. Ill., 1990).

Unable to read. (2002, March 17). Outside the Lines. Retrieved from

Mathews, J. (2003, November). The bias question. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

McJessy, K. (2017). Contract law: The proper framework for litigating educational liability claims. Northwestern University Law Review, 89, 1768–1816.

Mushnick, P. (2002, March 1). Whistle toots on academic fraud; div. 1 hoop grad rates a scam. New York Post. Retrieved from

Rafferty, D. P. (1993). Technical foul! Ross v. Creighton University allows courts to penalize universities which do not perform specific promises made to student-athletes. South Dakota Law Review, 38, 173–188.

Sperber, M. (2001). College sports inc.: The athletic department vs. the university. In Andrew Yiannakis & Merrill J. Melnick (Eds.), Contemporary issues in sociology of sport (pp. 147–157) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Top 10 Infamous NCAA sanctions (2010, July 27). RealClearSports. Retrieved from

[1] The NCAA claims that the odds are 1.3%. However, this is based on NCAA seniors. Many high school athletes who are recruited to play in the NCAA never make it to their senior year.

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