Selling their souls for winning teams

January 9, 2014

The “dumb jock” stereotype has existed almost as long as organized athletics have been around.

We know that, as with some other stereotypes, there might be a grain of truth in there somewhere. Otherwise, the stereotype most likely never would have entered our consciousness. But it also does a disservice to many athletes who are, at the very least, as smart as the average Joe or Jane. Some, of course, are much brighter than average.

College soccer, swimming, tennis and field hockey teams, for instance, seem to have more than their share of high academic achievers. Athletes in the so-called “revenue sports” – football and men’s basketball? Well, not so much. In fact, it appears that a significant number of the players populating those teams were fortunate – or, perhaps, not so fortunate – to get out of high school.

Sara Ganim authored a recent piece for CNN after surveying the basic skills of athletes at more than 20 public universities, and the results were not pretty.

Ganim, a Pulitzer Prize winner who broke the story of the Jerry Sandusky scandal while working at the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, talked with educators at the University of North Carolina and the University of Oklahoma who gathered data showing that about one in 10 college basketball and football players at those schools were reading at a fourth-grade level, or worse. At North Carolina, 60 percent were reading at a level no better than eighth grade.

Clearly, someone with that sort of an educational handicap cannot hope to complete a college education unless one of two things happens: 1) They are spoon-fed the most rudimentary classes in order to maintain their eligibility; or 2) They receive extraordinary remedial education and educational support.

In some cases, as we’ve seen through the years, that educational support has included someone else, whether it be a tutor or an employee in the athletic offices, doing the work for the prized athletes.

“They’re pushing them through,” Billy Hawkins, an associate professor and athlete mentor at the University of Georgia, told Ganim. “They’re graduating them. UGA is graduating No. 2 in the (Southeastern Conference), so they’re able to graduate athletes, but have they learned anything? Are they productive citizens now? That’s a thing I worry about. To get a degree is one thing. To be functional with that degree is totally different.”

Gerald Gurney, a University of Oklahoma professor who conducted one of the studies cited in the CNN report, was even more damning.

“College presidents have put in jeopardy the academic credibility of their universities just so we can have this entertainment industry. ... The NCAA continually wants to ignore this fact, but they are admitting students who cannot read,” he said.

Certainly, there are success stories about student-athletes who came to college ill-prepared for the coursework they faced but overcame those disadvantages, got their degrees and became successful in life.

But we feel certain there are many more cases where this kind of student is passed along, just as they were when they were star athletes in high school, in order to give their basketball or football teams a better chance of winning. And winning, in college athletics, translates into dollars, and far too many university presidents worship the almighty dollar at least as much as they promote the ideals of higher education.

The horse – or the golden goose – may be so far out of the barn at this point that any effort to reform the system is doomed to failure.

Perhaps the real answer is to recognize big-time college basketball and football programs for what they are: feeder systems for the NBA and NFL that generate huge sums of money for their schools. Maybe it’s time to quit pretending otherwise, pay these players for their service and remove the requirement that they at least go through the motions of pursuing a college education.



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