It’s no secret that many universities go to great lengths to let these “amateurs” in demanding athletic fields do as little as possible academically so that they can keep training hard. But it’s supposed to be a wink-wink-nudge-nudge process, not outright fraud. A few years ago, my own university, the University of North Carolina, breached this unspoken rule. The school became embroiled in a high-profile scandal after a professor provided fake classes aimed at athletes that gave them the grades required to keep their eligibility in return for little to no attendance or work. That, of course, made the charade uncomfortably explicit, and UNC faced national attention and some minor sanctions.
As an immediate countermeasure, the university dispatched minders to classrooms. In classes where I had student athletes, especially those in high-profile sports, a man started to appear after each class to ask me if so-and-so athlete had shown up. (This has apparently become a practice at other universities too). It was a no-win situation, because if I refused to cooperate, the students would face sanctions, and maybe even lose their scholarship. And my students were showing up, but many times they were dozing off in class, exhausted from their punishing training regime. Surveillance had brought surface-level compliance, but it had not solved the underlying crisis.
Instead of snitching on them, I took these students aside and did my best to warn them that their interests were not aligned with those of the university and the athletic department. I gave the football players pamphlets and information about concussions. I talked about the low odds that they would actually become professionals after college, and offered to help guide them in any way I could toward the healthiest, most viable future path.
This wasn’t the first time I encountered extensive surveillance of athletes, only to watch it backfire. In the previous decade, just as Facebook was taking off as a college social network, my student athletes told me that they were forced to “friend” their coaches on Facebook, so the coaches could keep tabs on them. Their solution? Parties that were explicitly no Facebook, no phones. Later, when athletes at many universities were forced to download tracking apps, I have little doubt that some of them did the equivalent of “no Facebook, no phone” parties with these apps: sent their phone along to class with a friend, or left it in their dorm, “sleeping,” while they socialized elsewhere. Why would we expect any other kind of response to a draconian surveillance regime under an unfair system?
Mandatory COVID-19 apps could result in an even worse outcome than that of tracking athletes—whom universities may be able to coerce more effectively because many athletes need their scholarships—because public health rests on trust and cooperation. Knowing that they are being tracked, some students will no doubt let their phone “sleep” peacefully in their bed while they party elsewhere. If a few get sick, they may hide it, for fear of having their tech trickery found out. This is an extra challenge with the college-student cohort because many of them either experience COVID-19 as a mild illness or are completely asymptomatic, but still seem to transmit the virus efficiently, unlike young children. Universities will likely be hindered in their crucial contact-tracing efforts as students will be inclined to lie. The end result will be more surface-level surveillance, but less useful information—and worse public-health outcomes.