Why a College Football Player Would Plagiarize from a Little Kid

Christopher Young

There’s plagiarism, and then there’s plagiarizing 11-year-olds—and Erik Highsmith, a senior wide receiver for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been caught doing the latter.

Highsmith plagiarized two posts for a blog that accounted for 30% of his final grade in his communications class. One post mirrored an essay on Urch.com, a site that helps people prepare for college entry exams, and the other—a post on poultry farming—was copied from an article on an educational site written by 11-year-olds for their peers.

Of course, plagiarism isn’t smart, and plagiarizing 11-year-olds does leave you open to ridicule—but there’s much more to Highsmith’s fate than might appear at first blush.

It’s important, as we chuckle at this story, to remember that the NCAA doesn’t pay its athletes, and many of these players who make millions for their schools and whom we treat like superstars are from poor, often African-American backgrounds that lack for educational opportunities. Many of these players conclude that, whether they enjoy the game or not, they have only one chance of achieving the financial security they desperately need—and that’s by playing professionally. As a Kentucky basketball player once said “This ain’t no spelling bee, this is a basketball game!” It’s an uncomfortable thought, but an entirely understandable one.

Such desperation can drive people to take desperate measures—yes, even to plagiarizing 11-year-olds.

When you look at Highsmith’s case, it’s possible to see that he was under precisely such pressure: Both his blog posts were “written” in a seven-day flurry of “academic activity,” after a year where he hadn’t contributed anything. It’s clear, then, that his intention is athletics, not academics, and since we value him for athletics, we shouldn’t be surprised that he rushes and then cheats on the other portion of his “college experience.”

This is just one of many similar incidents—consider the examples of Julius Peppers and Michael McAdoo—and there seems to exist a climate of plagiarism that points to something deeper and more troublesome than one person’s laziness. According to the News Observer, J. Nikol Beckham—the instructor who spotted the plagiarism and reported it to the academic support program for student athletes—noticed this trend too:

“I suggested that they consider that this isn’t an isolated incident,” she said, “And I received a great deal of assurances that it would be handled.”

Academic officials at UNC have come under fire in the wake of this controversy, and they have declined to comment on the matter. However, Steve Kirschner—an associate athletic director for communications at UNC—wrote a response that refuted claims that this problem was widespread:

“Staff interact with our student-athletes daily and often remind them of the responsibility they have to do the right thing in all aspects of their lives we believe our student-athletes meet those responsibilities the overwhelming amount of the time.”

The News Observer wrote that “an NCAA investigation had turned up numerous examples of a tutor providing improper help to football players,” so it becomes a possibility that Highsmith was in fact working in an atmosphere that did little to discourage his actions. Doubts have also been cast over the support he was given. J. Nikol Beckham was assured that someone from the academic support program would speak to Highsmith, but is quoted saying “but after that, I never heard anything.”

The NCAA—which made $845.9 million in 2010—has also received criticism for the unfair way in which it treats so-called scholar-athletes. If a kid can work off his loans stacking library shelves, why can’t a student be paid for catching footballs?

In April, the New York Times columnist Joe Nocera (a vocal critic of college athletics) gave an interview to Business Insider on the way the association handles its players: “They put in 40 to 50 hours a week at their ‘job’,” said Nocera, “They have to squeeze their schooling in between practice hours. There are tremendous—and tremendously unfair—restrictions imposed by the NCAA on what they can and cannot do because of their ‘amateur’ status. Most football and men’s basketball players at the big-time sports schools never graduate in any case.” He hinted at the hypocrisy at the core of the NCAA’s system, “And meanwhile, all the money they are generating trickles up to everyone else in the system.”

So, sure, laugh at Highsmith. He did a stupid thing. But he is not the only one to blame.

Young, Christopher. “Why a College Football Player Would Plagiarize from a Little Kid.” New York Daily News, 24 Oct. 2012, www.nydailynews.com/blogs/pageviews/2012/10/why-a-college-football-player-wouId-plagiarize-from-a-little-kid. Accessed 21 May 2013.