Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"A major in eligibility, with a minor in beating the system"

This sums up the academic atmosphere for all too many NCAA student-athletes today, as exposed in some excellent investigative journalism by USA Today. The entire series of articles is in the must-read category. Here are some of the most telling passages from the central piece:
Steven Cline left Kansas State University last spring with memories of two years as a starting defensive lineman for a major-college football team. He left with a diploma, credits toward a master's degree and a place on the 2007 Big 12 Conference all-academic team.

He also left with regrets about accomplishing all of this by majoring in social sciences — a program that drew 34% of the football team's juniors and seniors last season, compared with about 4% of all juniors and seniors at Kansas State. Cline says he found not-so-demanding courses that helped him have success in the classroom and on the field but did little for his dream of becoming a veterinarian. . . .

His experience reflects how the NCAA's toughening of academic requirements for athletes has helped create an environment in which they are more likely to graduate than other students — but also more likely to be clustered in programs without the academic demands most students face.

Some athletes say they have pursued — or have been steered to — degree programs that helped keep them eligible for sports but didn't prepare them for post-sports careers.

"A major in eligibility, with a minor in beating the system," says C. Keith Harrison, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, where he is associate director of the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

Note that NCAA President Myles Brand wrote quite recently:

Across the spectrum of Division I, there is little evidence of "clustering," or disproportionate numbers of student-athletes in certain majors.

Let me be clear! You can find examples of football or men's basketball programs with unacceptably low graduation rates. You can also find teams where unexplainably large numbers of football or men's basketball athletes are clustered in certain majors.

The USA Today report explodes Brand's talking point:

A USA TODAY study of the majors of juniors and seniors in five prominent sports at 142 of the NCAA's top-level schools shows athletes at many institutions clustering in certain majors, in some cases at rates highly disproportionate to those of all students.

The study involved the fall 2007 student rolls and the 2007-08 rosters for Division I teams in five sports — football, men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball and softball.

All 120 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) were included, as were 22 other Division I schools with standout men's or women's basketball teams. Nearly 9,300 athletes across 654 teams were covered by the study. Among the findings:

•83% of the schools (118 of 142) had at least one team in which at least 25% of the juniors and seniors majored in the same thing. For example, seven of the 19 players on Stanford's baseball team majored in sociology.

•34% of the teams (222 of 654) had at least one such cluster of student-athletes.

More than half of the clusters are what some analysts refer to as "extreme," in which at least 40% of athletes on a team are in the same major (125 of 235). All seven of the juniors and seniors on Texas-El Paso's men's basketball team majored in multidisciplinary studies, for example. . . .

Brand's response?

"Clustering by itself is replicated in many parts of the university. It's not necessarily bad," NCAA President Myles Brand says.

Ah, what an excellent rhetorical shift Myles. When the evidence shows that it is a widespread issue, just claim that it is not a problem. Or, sort of a problem. Maybe:

"But when you have extreme clustering … you really do have to ask some hard questions: Is there an adviser who's pushing students into this? Are there some faculty members who are too friendly with student-athletes? I'm not saying that's the case. But I think you have to ask those questions."

The NCAA is going to get on this immediately. Right?

Brand adds that it's up to each school to do so. "There are limits to what the national office can, and should, do," he says. "Anything to do with the academic programs really falls entirely within the purview of the individual institutions." . . .

Silly me for asking the question - way to pass the buck Myles. Where are the students left in all of this?

"There's a mixed message being sent out here" about the importance of academics in college sports, Georgia Tech men's basketball coach Paul Hewitt said in June before the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Several athletes echo Hewitt's sentiments.

Former Boise State safety Marty Tadman was among the 48% of the football team's juniors and seniors majoring in communication during the 2007-08 academic year. Boise State's communication program also drew 50% of the juniors and seniors on the men's basketball and women's basketball teams.

"You hear which majors, and which classes, are the easiest and you take them," Tadman says. "You're going to school so you can stay in sports. You're not going for a degree. … It's a joke." . . .

This is, in part, a consequence of the law of unintended consequences:

There also is a new NCAA rule that threatens penalties for teams with too many players who become academically ineligible or fail to graduate. Based on their annually published Academic Progress Rate (APR), teams can lose scholarships and eventually become ineligible for postseason play, either of which can embarrass a school and affect a team's ability to win.

Hewitt, the Georgia Tech men's basketball coach, bluntly articulated many coaches' view of the "unintended consequences" of the APR system at the Knight Commission meeting in June. He said then that when an NCAA official came to the Atlantic Coast Conference meetings four years ago to discuss the APR system, "almost every coach said: 'You understand what you're basically telling us. We're going to encourage our kids to take the easiest path to eligibility.'

"So if I'm at a Georgia Tech, I'm not going to tell a young man he can't major in engineering," Hewitt said. "But I certainly will counsel him before he takes that first class that … if you decide to go down this road and for some reason you find it harder than you expected and you decide to change your major, you're probably more than likely going to end up being ineligible" for sports.

Why not recruit more players with the capacity to both major in engineering and play basketball? Its not like they are not out there. The truth is that they would do nothing for Hewitt's job security. This will remain the case so long as coaches are rewarded for teams successful in competition but incompetent in the classroom, but get fired for graduating players at high rates while posting mediocre records.

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