There was probably no single defining moment when it should have become obvious to the universities that their athletic departments were on the verge of academic bankruptcy. In The Sun Also Rises, Bill Gorton asks Mike Campbell how he went broke. "Gradually," Mike replies, "and then suddenly." That is how the colleges nearly lost their minds, and then their souls, over the past two decades—slowly, and then suddenly.
Certainly Dexter Manley's tearful testimony before Congress last year that he played football for Oklahoma State from 1977 to '80 despite being a functional illiterate forced a lot of schools to suddenly get religion. Some others may have seen the light upon learning that basketball player Kevin Ross sat in classes for four years at Creighton before leaving college in '82 to enroll at a Chicago elementary school because he, too, could not read. At Cal State-Los Angeles seven members of the basketball team took matters into their own hands when they filed suit against the university for alleged academic fraud. The school eventually paid the players $100,000 in damages and educational benefits and issued a public apology. "Reform is always stimulated by scandal," says political science professor Jack Citrin, who is the faculty representative to the athletic department at Berkeley. "You can only hold your nose for so long."
Athletic study centers and academic-services offices have blossomed on campuses like hothouse flowers, and the need for them is manifest. Consider this: Thirty of the 120 players invited to the 1990 Nike basketball camp for top high school players tested at a sixth-grade reading level, and six of those could read at no better than a third-grade level. University of Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum has recruited one of the most talented freshman classes in the nation, but three of the five players will be academically ineligible this season. "I think, frankly, it [the recruiting class] was embarrassing to the University of Louisville," says the school's president, Donald Swain, acidly.
However, that is what Swain gets for making his dean of admissions nothing more than a rubber stamp when it comes to admitting athletes. Swain and the presidents of numerous other universities allow their athletic departments—and, in many cases, individual coaches—to dictate which athletes are admitted. Given that system, it's small wonder that Louisville has a 10-member academic-support staff, plus 50 to 60 student tutors for its athletes. Cardinals football coach Howard Schnellenberger requires his team to put in so many hours practicing, lifting weights and watching film that the players have their own team motto: If you wanted to study, you should have gone to Harvard.
November 19, 1990
Louisville, though, is hardly the only offender. An NCAA study released in 1988 revealed that upperclassmen who play football or basketball spend an average of 30 hours per week practicing and playing their sports, but only 25 hours attending class and studying. But what seems to be changing, albeit slowly, is the opportunity athletes are being given to get an education. "The reality is, you've got them, now what are you going to do with them?" says Margaret Wellons, the coordinator of academic advisers at Cal. "Are you going to pass them along? Or are you going to enable them to succeed on their own?"
Major-college athletic powers all over the country are finally wrestling with that question rather than turning a deaf car. As a result, over the last several years universities throughout the nation have taken steps to provide better educational opportunities for athletes who might otherwise have simply gone through the motions academically until their eligibility expired. The most significant of those steps has been the widespread hiring of academic counselors, who in many instances are becoming as important in the lives of athletes as their coaches.
SI has chosen to take a look at the academic-support programs at two large state universities: Cal, an institution that is far more renowned for academic achievements than for athletic feats, and Auburn, where the reverse is true. Cal hasn't so much as won a conference title outright in football or basketball since 1960. Auburn, on the other hand, is a perennial national football power, has had two Heisman Trophy winners and currently has 27 of its former athletes playing in either the NFL or the NBA.
The Tigers, however, have paid a price for athletic success. Auburn graduated 54% of the students who enrolled there from 1980 through '83, but only 24% of its basketball players and 20% of its football players. By contrast, from 1981 through '84 Cal had an overall graduation rate of 65%, including 44% of its football players and 43% of its basketball players. "There's a great difference between our athletes and our regular students," says Patrick Waters, Auburn's director of academic services, which has five full-time counselors for athletes. "You throw kids with ACT [American College Test] scores of 17 or 18 in with kids who have scored 24 on the ACT—and remember that only half of those kids graduate—and you've got a very stressful situation. The athlete's chances of graduating in five years are practically nil."
Therefore, Cal is obviously doing a better job of educating athletes than Auburn, right? Not so fast. Alabama, where Auburn is located, ranks 48th nationally in per capita spending on public education. Hence it is reasonable to assume that the students who matriculate at Auburn are less prepared for the rigors of college than are their counterparts at Berkeley. "Most of our athletes start from a base that will prevent them from ever being intellectuals," says Waters.
Cal has also been more reluctant than Auburn to admit athletes who do not qualify under NCAA Bylaw 5-1-(j), known as Proposition 48. These athletes are not allowed to play or practice with their teams during their first year on campus. Cal has admitted only four nonqualifiers since the rule was instituted, in 1986; Auburn has taken 17. "I don't approach that first year as 'let's just get eligible,' " says Auburn academic adviser Lisa Knight. "If you use up their electives all at once, you're going to end up with nothing but super-demanding courses once they start playing."
One other factor to keep in mind when assessing graduation rates: As the figures cited above indicate, graduation for nonathletes is hardly a given these days. Congress recently passed the Student Right to Know Act, which will require colleges and universities to make their graduation rates public. A lot of schools fear the legislation, not because of the deplorable rates at which their athletes are graduating—which are bad enough—but because the rest of their students are doing scarcely better, and in many cases worse.
At Auburn fewer than 20% of all male freshmen will graduate in four years. "I don't think people know much about the regular student," says Knight. "They think people just enroll, and then four years later they graduate. And that when the athlete doesn't, it's abnormal."
Zane Arnold, a senior member of Auburn's basketball team, did well in school while sitting out his freshman season, but as a sophomore he found that his basketball skills had grown rusty, and, as a result, his confidence in the classroom plummeted. "He struggled for the first time here with his grades," says Knight. "Now he's dealt with what he needed to on the floor, and his confidence has come back. The two inevitably work together."
Next spring, Arnold will still need about six quarters to graduate. "I care about the education part of it because that's the only way you can continue to play ball," he says.
"They've got it all figured out—how it's going to work out," says Knight. "There's not a lot I can say if they believe their ultimate destiny is to play pro ball."
According to the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, at Northeastern University, only 0.9% of the college athletes in basketball and football play in the NBA or NFL for a year or more. That could explain why, according to Auburn, 40 former Tiger football players who have played in the NFL since 1981 have returned to campus during the off-season to continue their educations.
If a recruit has questions about the academic rigors at Cal, one of the six members of the academic support staff—who meet with every prospect—will clear them up. "We try to make sure [the athletes] know we can't find them any Mickey Mouse classes, because there aren't any," says Wellons. "I tell them that if they don't have good study habits, if they don't want to do the work, don't come here."
"It's not an easy choice for an athlete to come here," says Jo Baker, Cal's tutorial coordinator. "Professors don't know you, and if they do know you, they probably don't like you."
An athlete's first year at Berkeley is devoted primarily to learning good study habits, which most of the athletes have not acquired in high school. "We try to create a safety net for students, so they don't fall through the cracks," says Jere Takahashi, the director of Cal's athletic study center.
At Berkeley, student-athletes are hardly embraced by their fellow students. "Half the students at Cal couldn't care less what happens up at the football stadium on Saturdays," says John Sullivan, a former Golden Bear football player who is now an academic adviser at the school. "You are treated differently. You almost never get to interact with other students, so you don't feel like part of the campus. Some coaches like it that way, because then they have your total concentration. As an athlete, so many decisions are made for you, it's easy not to find out who you are."
Most coaches know precisely what they are doing, though some of them try to camouflage their intent. Crum likes to refer to the "urban mission" he has been conducting for the past decade, during which only 21% of his players have graduated. Crum insists he is providing them with a culturally enriching experience, and he argues that the uplifted lives of a lot of 6'10" guys who otherwise would not be in school are far more important than degrees. Funny thing—Louisville doesn't provide the same enriching experience for any 5'6" guys who otherwise would not be in school.
What coaches do care about is keeping their players eligible, which means the athletes must pass 12 credit hours each semester or quarter (with satisfactory progress being shown toward a degree in a major in the last two years). This is the point at which the coaches' interests converge with those of the academic advisers. The academic-services department at Auburn has an office with the title ELIGIBILITY SPECIALIST painted on the door, the occupant of which tracks computer printouts of every Tiger athlete's grades. "It doesn't make much sense to ask them to come to Auburn and when they get here, let them sink or swim on their own," says Knight.
Knight spends almost two hours every day at a table near the door of the athletic dorm's lunchroom, nursing a salad and snagging players as they come by, their trays laden with food. At one point not long ago she had five athletes of varying sizes gathered around her, some wanting tutors, one needing to know how to drop a class without endangering his eligibility, one with a student-aid form he didn't know how to fill out. "I try very hard not to nag them," she says, wincing slightly. "They know the consequences if they don't follow through on certain things."
At Cal, where the athletic study center has no official ties to the athletic department, advisers keep their distance from what they consider the corrupting influences of big-time sports. For Wellons, Mary Fenlon—the Mother Courage of academic advisers—who has become somewhat famous by sitting on the bench with the Georgetown basketball team, is no role model. "If I sat on the bench," says Wellons, "I'd feel bought by the athletic department."
Auburn monitors the eligibility of its athletes by sending cards to all of their professors three times each quarter, asking for an estimated grade and information about the athlete's class attendance. Some professors deplore the jockocracy they think exists at Auburn, so cooperation is less than universal. The response rate runs at about 60%.
Advisers almost never intercede with a professor on an athlete's behalf, although if the player is important enough, pressure to bend the rules can increase in ways not terribly subtle. An assistant football coach at Auburn once told Waters that a term paper the team's star running back had to turn in to stay eligible had somehow better get written. "The implication was that the paper had to be written for him to keep him eligible," says Waters, who declined the honor.
Even if such strains were eliminated by separating all academic-support programs from the control of athletic departments, academic advisers would still be unable to get any but the most devoted scholar-athletes to attend nightly tutorials without the backing of the coaches. "We have no clout," says Wellons. "But some coaches will tell a kid not to come to practice because he needs to be at the study table."
At both Auburn and Cal, study halls with tutors are mandatory, at least initially, for every freshman athlete. Auburn employs 90 tutors—most of them upperclassmen recommended by academic department heads—and spends $65,000 a year on them. Cal spends nearly twice that on its 60 tutors for athletes, and extends the same support service to the entire student body, something few other schools do.
When a graduate student at Auburn recently applied for a tutoring position in the athletic department and heard that there were no openings, he asked where he could sign up as a tutor for regular students. "This is college, not high school," Charlotte Billings, one of the department's football counselors, told him. "Students shouldn't need help." The graduate student listened in stunned silence, and then wandered away.
Knight was hired as a full-time adviser at Auburn in 1988 after a brief stint working in a ministry on campus. Now she ministers to the academic needs of Tiger basketball players, as well as to all first-year athletes who are academically ineligible. "It's amazing what they see my job as," Knight says. "It's not really mothering, but we're one of their first contacts, so we're the ones they come to when they need help. At some point you just have to learn to say no. If you thought of all these guys as your children—that they were going to do what you ask because they love you—it would kill you. You wouldn't last two months."
Players report to study hall after practicing for several hours and eating a big meal, not exactly a combination designed to increase alertness. Knight occasionally wanders around the room shaking the players who have fallen asleep at their carrels. The athletes frequently complain to Knight when they are assigned a male tutor, and she does her best to find female tutors for them. "They're around teammates and coaches all day, and they have a curfew at night," she says. "So they like being around female personalities."
Knight often wonders, though, what kind of message it sends to the young black men in her care that virtually all their tutors—people they identify as intelligent—are white and female. Cal's Baker is so worried about this sort of psychological imprinting that she seeks out minority and male tutors. "If you have all white women doing the tutoring, it creates a dangerous idea," Baker says, "especially for the black males. They need a diversity of role models. Before they leave here, I want them to be tutored by other black males, by Asians, by handicapped people, so they know that any group—including theirs—can be successful."
Baker presides over nightly 3½-hour sessions that include individual tutorials and numerous work groups, which often crackle with energy. The study sessions are mandatory not only for freshmen athletes but also for athletes identified as being "at risk" because of poor grades or personal troubles. Baker takes a sort of grim satisfaction—but little credit—when the intensive intervention works. "I find it so frustrating when a student who wasn't targeted to go here makes it and we're given the credit," she says. "It's a real disservice to the student—especially the black male—because even when he's done it, he doesn't think he has."
DuShon Brown, a sophomore point guard, is well on his way to having made it, despite being stigmatized as Cal's first Prop 48 athlete. "People were labeling me as a dumb kid," says Brown. "I'd have to explain to them that I was just 10 points shy [of the 700 requirement] on my SAT scores. I was always defending myself."
Brown had done little in high school to prepare for Berkeley. "I had a lot of favor with the teachers," he says. "I might have studied occasionally, but I was focused on basketball. It wasn't until that first year of college that academics slapped me in the face. I got scared and said maybe I'd better start putting some time in."
He went from studying four hours a week—"max," he says—in high school to hitting the books as much as four hours a night at Cal. "Getting thrown into this academic war, I don't know where I got my strength," says Brown.
He points out that Baker first taught him how to study and then how to learn. "I was the type of person who didn't trust people at first," says Brown. "But Jo Baker took me in like a son. She would go to extremes to make me study. Sometimes she would even lock me in a room. She actually cares, and you can feel that warmth."
Last year Brown felt "divorced" from the team as he forlornly watched his teammates head off for practice every day. "Looking back, I think it was a blessing I didn't play ball," says Brown. "By the second semester, my mind was actually being used for the first time. And I liked it. When I was growing up, I was spoon-fed by the TV, but when I started to read, I was able to create my own images in my mind. It was beautiful. That carried over onto the basketball court, where I began to think more in terms of creating new images. Now whenever I want to relax and clear my head, I just pick up a book and start to read."