Interesting piece from ESPN.com Page 2 columnist and current Sirius sports talk host Bomani Jones on student athletes and academics.
If you're looking beneath the surface for the problem in Chapel Hill, you might find it in the amazing coincidence that so many top-notch athletes are so interested in how humans relay messages. Or maybe it's just that "communications" fits the bill for what a former UNC football player told me about the majors of choice there: Athletes are interested in a major that works around their busy schedules, requires little math, primarily assigns short papers and uses subjective grading in most of its courses.
That common thread among so many of UNC's best players reflects a problem particular to athletics. It isn't limited to Chapel Hill; nor is it merely an indication of how education has been devalued across the board. Only in athletics are students asked to manage their schoolwork around their real jobs. It's the only department on campus where limiting the scope of one's educational possibilities is passed off as a favor. It essentially designates a teenager to be academically irredeemable.
As long as education is used as currency for athletes' bodies and ungodly amounts of their time, they must at least learn something. Otherwise, they're being "paid" with rubber checks.
They receive clothes, lodging and the chance to work, a bushel of goods that makes comparisons between college sports and human trafficking unavoidable. Without an enriching educational environment, the current system of college athletics is worse than unfair. It's inhumane.
That is why the resolution of these allegations of academic impropriety is so much more important than the sprawling probe of agents that began after NCAA officials noticed UNC's Marvin Austin tweeting about enjoying some benefits that college football players might not be allowed. That investigation centers around external forces that are oppositional to the NCAA, enemies the NCAA will always face as long as schools are so concerned with growing revenues. It's the NCAA protecting its virtue from those that wish it harm.
The academic allegations don't come with a bogeyman like agents. They are about a school against itself -- its lucrative and visible side business versus its primary objective, two things that each day seem to have less to do with one another. More importantly, it's a public battle between reality and the rhetoric that makes the current system at all defensible: that education is a priceless, uplifting asset that student-athletes will have forever.
Asking head coach Butch Davis and athletics director Dick Baddour to answer for one tutor isn't enough. What UNC needs to ask itself is whether the millions it invests in academic support is about teaching student-athletes or keeping them eligible and making them viable contributors to the school's Academic Progress Rate.
Be sure to read the whole thing. I think Jones is mostly right here in that academic support is centered more on keeping players eligible than it is giving them a good education. Earlier this week I alluded to my days as an athlete at UNC Greensboro and how athletes were asked to attend study hall if their GPA fell to close to the eligibility line. The implication was no one cares if your GPA was hovering just above the NCAA prescribed Mendoza line of 1-8-2.0 but if you strayed into an area where your eligibility was threatened then action was taken. For all anyone knew or cared you could be taking the easiest classes on campus and working towards some worthless degree. As long as you pulled a 2.01 the athletic department really did concern itself with you.
Jones' basic point is no one cares about the quality of education received by athletes only that they hit whatever milestones the NCAA sets forth for continuing eligibility. The question is how do you raise that quality and balance their time with the commitment to being a Division I student athlete? As a cross country runner it was easier. We generally had one daily practice that consumed 2-3 hours from around 3-6 PM. There were 6-8 meets during the season, all on Saturday which meant only missing afternoon classes on Friday. For football and basketball players in particular the sport is much more time consuming. There is practice, working out in the weight room, film sessions, treatment for injuries, etc, etc, etc. While the NCAA limits practice time there is no limit on what the athlete might opt to do on his own. Given the time spent on athletic endeavors it is easy to see how athletes might gravitate towards school work that fits around the object of their primary focus.
In that regard, I do wonder if you can make a comparison to regular students who spend as much time honing a talent such as playing the violin as football players do on the practice field. However in those cases, students are expected to maintain their skill and attend other classes all without the academic support structure athletes have behind them. I have heard the argument made that athletes should be able to avail themselves of a major course of study which is connected to their sport. However that is really no different than what is happening now since you are implying that athletes cannot do "real" academic work so they are going to shunt them into a "special" major just for jocks.
In other words, there are no easy answers, especially with an entrenched culture that has revenue as the ultimate end. Keeping players on the north side of eligibility is simply a means to that end. Not to mention, you can lead a horse to water but your cannot make it drink. In some cases, players simply do not care to do the work. Jones cites a lack of time as the reason a player might lean on a tutor to get a paper done. I think you cannot discount apathy as a contributing factor or the notion that going to class is unnecessary beyond it being a means to staying eligible so they can showcase their talents and get drafted professionally. In other cases, some athletes are just like students in the general population. They would rather watch TV, go to a movie, hang out with friends or any number of activities college students do in their free time. If I had a dollar for every minute I put off doing a paper or studying for a test, I'd probably be rich. Yet, I was 18-22 years old, on my own for the first time and enjoying the college life. There was a level of academic survival I was willing to accept and my academic focus reflected that.
Some people go to college and invest time in academics because that is their passion. Maybe they like school. Maybe they have a tremendous work ethic. Maybe it comes easy to them. There are those of us who are perfectly fine with a GPA at or slightly below 3.0 so we spent less time on our school work than we would if we wanted to be summa cum laude. There are still others who have not an ounce of concern for their academics. Student athletes as a whole have people from each of these categories. When you add the trappings on being a star athlete on a ranked athletic team, I imagine it can have a deleterious effect on their focus. When you add the prospect of making millions of dollars professionally, the appetite for academic work might drop even more. In the end I agree with Jones that an effort should be made the raise the quality of education being received by athletes. I also realize that all you can do is put the opportunity before them and encourage them to take it. Some of them will, some of them will resist. All any administration can do is try. The question is UNC or anyone else actually trying?