Academics ask NCAA to release data on LD/ADHD among athletes after a report on UNC rates

In light of the recent athletic admissions scandal, the on-going and growing concussion crisis, and new reporting from The Athletic, we call on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and all NCAA member institutions to release two decades of data on LD/ADHD rates within their athletic programs, properly anonymized. We call also on the NCAA and universities to ensure that these rates are reported publicly and audited by impartial authorities annually hereafter. Transparency and disclosure are essential to institutional integrity and protection of athletes’ mental and physical well being.

Recent reporting by the The Athletic has alleged dramatically elevated rates of learning disability (LD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among college athletes at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, from 2004 to 2012 — rates that far exceed those found in the general population.

The sources for these allegations are UNC documents in online archives released as a result of the athletic-academic cheating scandal during the period from 1993 to 2011. We do not use the word allegation lightly. In its interim policy and procedures for responding to allegations of research misconduct (adopted September 2019), Harvard University has defined allegation to mean “a disclosure of possible research misconduct through any means of communication.”

The Athletic’s reporting qualifies. The reporting was done by Armen Keteyian, investigative journalist and 11-time Emmy Award winner; documentary film-maker Andrew Muscato; Peabody award winner and veteran of CBS’ Barbara Walters show and 60 Minutes, Alan Goldberg; and award-winning investigative journalist Christian Red. It is also largely based on a peer-reviewed 2019 article by Ted Tatos and Don Comrie in the Journal of Scientific Practice and Integrity. The documentary and article are serious communications of potential scientific misconduct, failed disclosure, and striking discrepancies between peer-reviewed published research and unpublished graduate student research. Worse, the reporting leaves open the possibility that athletic department personnel sought to use LD/ADHD diagnoses to cover up the effects of recurrent head trauma among matriculating or continuing participants in high-revenue sports.

We note that while UNC administrators and researchers refused to go on the record with reporters from The Athletic, they have subsequently and strenuously denied the allegations. We note also that one hundred neuropsychologists and clinicians have written in support of UNC’s research to UNC administrative authorities. The original authors of the study have vigorously responded to UNC’s denials as well.

Most of us in reviewing these complicated allegations are in no position to evaluate the impact of LD/ADHD incidence in concussion research findings as reported by The Athletic – although it defies credulity that a reputable magazine would publish such a story without rigorous fact-checking. As college educators, however, we are sufficiently expert in teaching and academics to evaluate the numerous ways that such patterns of diagnoses might work to keep athletes eligible or allow them to play hurt. Were this pattern wider than UNC, which we fear, it would represent the profoundest abuse of our universities’ often strained offices of disability services. It would also constitute unconscionable exploitation of college athletes.

Jay Smith is a history professor and Sherryl Kleinman is a sociology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

This letter was signed by 250 academics. The list of the signatories is online.

This letter originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.