The academic dilemma of the college athletic star

When the star wideout from Acadinia High School in Lafayette, Louisiana arrived on the Cal Berkeley campus in August, the last subject on his mind was Introduction to Economics. In six weeks he’d step onto the grass at Memorial Stadium clad in blue and gold for the football home opener. During those six weeks he would have two a day practices, weight training sessions, team strategy meetings, team meals, and time on his own to learn the playbook. It was virtually a full time job. So when it came time to get started on academics he didn’t have a lot left. But he needed a lot, more than the average incoming freshman, because at Acadinia he was a below average student with grades and test scores not even close to the range usually required to get into what is considered the most elite public university in the country. Football got him to Cal, not the SAT, and without the time nor the skills, he was set up to struggle in the classroom. He wasn’t alone. At Cal, 44% of football players fail to graduate. And for basketball players in the seven major athletic conferences like the Pac-12 and Big Ten, the graduation rate was 32.4 lower than for the general male population in 2011.

Although the NCAA cites statistics somewhat better than Cal’s, with football and basketball player graduation rates in the 60s among major schools, colleges and universities show a consistent pattern of recruiting academically underperforming players, often in football and basketball, who ultimately falter in the classroom. It is an embarrassment to the schools and an injustice to these students who are put in an untenable predicament. The question we must pose is whether it’s legitimate to lure such athletic stars to campuses and ask them to survive in the classroom while devoting 30 hours a week to a sport.

There is a culture of falsity around this issue, as schools claim they do not accept underqualified students, especially at elite institutions like Stanford, Duke and Michigan. But the recruiting narrative even at these schools belies the claim. Duke, for example, is arguably the best basketball recruiting team in the nation and offers scholarships to the cream of the high school crop. It doesn’t withhold prize scholarships from superstar athletes who may struggle to fulfill its demanding academic requirements.

One answer to the dilemma of the beleaguered student-athlete is to create a specialized support system that fosters academic success. Critics will argue this is inequitable, that other students don’t have special programs set up for them outside a campus tutoring center. But if we accept that these students should have the opportunity to be on campus, we owe it to them to provide the tools for academic success. Current efforts to help students are sometimes enabling. Stories abound of ersatz classes with flimsy achievement requirements and tutors who over-assist students. One of the most egregious cases has been at the University of North Carolina where over the last two decades football players and other athletes have been allowed to take so-called independent studies classes with little oversight or academic demands. A tutor for these classes who said she could no longer remain silent about an unethical system reported that many of her students read at elementary grade school level and yet managed to receive course credits. This is certainly an extreme but there are many examples of patsy classes oriented specifically to serve athletes. I can remember as a kid growing up in Ann Arbor back in the 70s reading incredulously at the University of Michigan football magazine player profiles that listed physical education for half the student majors. Even Stanford, the university of highest academic standing among schools in the major conferences, has had a list circulated among athletes of undemanding courses like social dancing.

An academic support system that obviates the perceived necessity of lowering standards should begin when athletes are still in high school. When recruits visit college campuses and are ushered around to meet with coaches and tour athletic facilities, what kind of introduction do they get to the academic side of life? Do they sit down with an academic counselor, attend a sample class or get shown a reading list or course syllabus? Just as football players arrive on campus for practices in the summer to prepare for the fall season, they should be given a rigorous introduction to the college experience in the summer between high school and college. Once on campus, these athletes need more than piecemeal and often loose remedial tutoring. More than graduate student tutors who spend an hour or two narrowly focused on a particular math or writing assignment, students need trained mentors who serve as models and guide student athletes more systematically toward academic success. Athletes should also be required to meet regularly with professors just as they meet with coaches. The coaches themselves should be in touch with those on the academic side so that the athletic and academic experiences are more closely connected. Players should be helped to perceive how they can apply to their academics many of the practices for success they engage in on the court and the field including rigorous discipline and strategic analysis. To their credit some schools and universities are developing programs to provide such guidance.

Some people might argue that offering this kind of academic support is coddling. It’s hard to argue, though, that an athlete is being indulged when he is in a position of having to work demonstrably harder than a typical student to achieve academically while also spending months working at what amounts to a full time commitment. Others may say schools cannot afford to allocate so many resources to such a structured support program. But if so many resources are put into the athletic programs and facilities, a corresponding commitment to academics seems just.

Schools should also provide opportunities to meaningfully integrate athletic and academic work, thereby enhancing both. Athletic life for many athletes now has virtually no relationship to academics. The University of Michigan is one school that has challenged this disconnect by updating the old dubious physical education program into a more sophisticated program in the School of Kinesiology where one can study biomechanics, sports marketing, and legal issues in athletics. Other universities have similarly multi-dimensional programs.

Students who are invited to attend a school as athletes first, and scholars second, may struggle to negotiate their dual identity. As of this spring that identity has become even more complicated by the federal labor ruling that football players at Northwestern University qualify as employees and have the right to unionize. The ruling underlines that athletes in the most demanding sports serve the university as much as it serves them and that in essence these athletes are being asked to carry two jobs. Whether these athletes should be compensated in dollars because schools profit from them financially, they should definitely be compensated with extensive academic support. Our system that offers elite athletes the opportunity to get higher education is commendable for opening a gateway to young people who might otherwise not have access to quality schooling. We need to make sure the gateway remains open for all of them.