When Leroy Holt enrolled at Southern Cal in the fall of 1985, it didn't take long to determine that he would need more coaching in the classroom than on the football field. According to the results of the battery of diagnostic examinations that all USC freshman athletes have to take, Holt had severe reading deficiencies. He would be a major test for the university's academic support system. Tutoring, though, didn't seem to help Holt. His difficulties lay elsewhere.
His eyes, he says, tired quickly when he read, and he would fall asleep with his books in his hands. "I got a lot of negative comments from my tutors," he says. "They would tell me I fit the stereotype of athletes as dumb jocks, that I wasn't trying hard enough and applying myself. Maybe they were trying to motivate me, but all it did was make it harder for me to feel like I could do it."
Holt's tutors had been assigned by Student Athlete Academic Services (SAAS), a USC program that tries to help athletes adjust to college-level work. His progress in class was monitored—Holt's professors submitted midterm evaluations of his work to the program—and he was given individual tutoring. Still, Holt struggled. By the end of the first semester of his sophomore year—his third at USC because he spent a year as a redshirt—he had worked his way up to second-string fullback but was on academic probation.
The athletic department wanted to see him continue to play football. So Holt enrolled at Santa Monica College to earn enough units during the spring and summer to maintain his USC eligibility. He returned to USC for his junior season and started at fullback. But again Holt was not successful in the classroom—though he continued to receive tutoring—and he returned to Santa Monica for the spring semester. In other words, for two years Holt was a USC student only during football season.
August 11, 1991
Toward the end of his junior year, he finally got the help he needed. At the suggestion of assistant athletic director Marvin Cobb, he went to an eye doctor who discovered that Holt's problem was his vision, not his mind or his motivation. "The way it was explained to me," says Holt, "my left eye would read the beginning of one line, shut down, and my right eye would start reading the end of a different line. It had nothing to do with my intelligence."
He received vision therapy and his grades began to improve, but it was too late for Holt to get back on track toward the degree in history he wanted to earn. When his five years of athletic eligibility ended after the 1989 season, he was 15 units short of graduating. He's now in the Miami Dolphins' training camp, trying to make the team after spending last season on injured reserve as a rookie. He plans to get his degree under USC's Degree Achievement Program, which pays for a semester of tuition and fees for athletes who return to the campus in hopes of graduating.
Holt's experience is typical of many black athletes who have come to USC poorly prepared for the academic demands of college. The school has a special admissions program, now called the University Access Program, for students who don't meet Southern Cat's usual academic requirements. In 1987, 17 freshman football players, including nine blacks, entered USC under the special admissions program. According to a memo obtained by SI, the reading levels of the 17 football players "are many times no better than sixth grade. Math skills are comparable." A report from the USC President's Athletic Advisory Board said that in 1988 125 students were admitted under the special admissions program: 50 were athletes; 20 were black athletes. All but one of the black athletes were football or basketball players, and most were considered high academic risks.
Several current and former Trojan athletes, as well as some university administrators, say USC fails these black athletes in perhaps the worst way that a university can fail a student—by not providing the academic support necessary for them to succeed in college. USC is hardly alone in this regard. "I suspect we're typical of [colleges] around the United States," says Margaret Gatz, the faculty athletic representative at USC. "Faculty reps talk to one another. I'm matched any time I tell a story."
An NCAA study of 3,288 athletes at 85 Division I schools who entered as freshmen in 1984 and '85 revealed that 52.3% of white athletes graduated within five years, but only 26.6% of black athletes finished in that time. In football and men's basketball, the graduation rates were 54.9% for white players, 25.0% for black players. A 1988-89 study of athletes at 42 universities, commissioned by the NCAA Presidents Commission and conducted by the American Institutes for Research, indicated that athletes in general and black athletes in particular felt isolated both socially and academically from the rest of the student body.
"The exploitation of black athletes by colleges and universities in this country has been going on for a long time, even at a school with the history and reputation of USC," says Cobb. "USC, like many schools, is a virtual black-athlete factory running on quarter speed. They go out and sell those kids on the Trojan family, that a USC degree will mean the world. Yet they don't have the proper resources to make it an even chance for the kids they recruit."
Not all former Trojan players feel that way. Mike Garrett, winner of the 1965 Heisman Trophy and now an associate athletic director at USC, says the exploitation works both ways. "Exploited? Hey, exploit me again like that," says Garrett. "For a kid to get a scholarship to USC is a great, great opportunity. To some degree, it has to be up to the kid to take advantage of it. It was absolutely the best thing that happened to me. You could say I exploited the school."
In November, Cobb, who is black, filed a racial discrimination suit against USC, his alma mater. Among the charges is that he was denied a promised promotion in retaliation for his complaints about the school's treatment of black athletes. University officials responded to the suit by denying the allegations. They also defend their commitment to provide adequate academic help to all Trojan athletes. They point to a once abysmal graduation rate—38.9% of the athletes who entered USC in 1982 got diplomas—that has recently shown improvement. Four of the 13 black football players who entered USC in 1984 earned their degrees within five years. That number improved to eight of 10 in the next year, and then dropped to three of six players who had entered in '86.
The officials also point to USC's $2.5 million academic center, scheduled for completion by early next year, and to the Degree Achievement Program. From 1985 through the spring semester of 1991, 123 former USC athletes had participated in the Degree Achievement Program. A similar plan, the Former Athletes Degree Achievement Program, is geared toward USC players who have gone on to pro careers. Charles White, the 1979 Heisman Trophy winner, is among those who have returned to Southern Cal under this program, which began in the fall of 1990.
"We work hard to meet the needs of high-risk students," says Jim Dennis, vice-president of student affairs. "Some we provide the opportunity to are unable to meet expectations. Some of that is a problem with motivation or very poor preparation. A large number of things come into play. We're constantly trying to improve, but we think we have a strong program."
USC does not accept Proposition 48 athletes, but it does have the University Access Program, which until last year was called the Freshman Access Program (FAP). All the men's basketball recruits in the past four years have been part of the program. In 1987, 89% of the football team was made up of FAP students. The percentage fell to 62.5% in '88 and 58.8% in '89.
Students in this program fall into what USC calls the "at risk" category, students who have difficulty maintaining at least a 2.4 GPA without substantial help. In 1988, for instance, the results of the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test suggested that 15 of the 20 black athletes admitted under FAP could be expected to have "substantial" to "extreme difficulty in processing college-level reading material." Ten of the 15 students wound up on academic probation.
"The problem is that we're not supporting them early enough," says Gatz. "We wait until it becomes a crisis. I see transcripts at the end of the year, and I see patterns that look like something should have been done earlier—athletes who are always catching up, taking summer school to get eligible. Kids dropping courses the last day of spring practice."
SAAS is the primary source of academic assistance for high-risk student-athletes. Candy Duncan, director of SAAS, estimates that she and her staff spend 75% of their time working with these students. "The ones most needy are the ones who get the most help," says Duncan.
But there are indications that SAAS might need help itself. For the 1989-90 academic year, USC allotted an operating budget of $62,861 to SAAS, about 80% of which went to pay tutors. Last year Auburn spent $65,000 on tutoring for athletes, and the University of California spent nearly twice that much. This year UCLA will spend $175,000.
Dennis says, "Our budget figures, for example, don't include the amount we spend on a psychologist, career counseling and emotional counselors. When you look at the total resources available to student athletes [at USC], we spend between $500,000 and $600,000 a year."
But the criticisms of SAAS go beyond its budget. A survey of directors of academic-support programs for athletes at 15 universities, commissioned by SAAS in 1989, reported that the average number of tutors at the other universities was 76. USC had only 23 tutors.
Then there are criticisms of the SAAS staff, specifically Duncan. Cobb and other members of the administration, who asked not to be named, believe that the hiring of Duncan, who is white, was indicative of a lack of commitment to black athletes by USC. "I'm very hurt by those inferences," says Duncan. "No black student has ever come to me with that kind of concern."
The six-person search committee that in 1987 made recommendations for the vacant post of director of SAAS included Cobb, Gatz and basketball coach George Raveling. Cobb argued that, because many of Southern Cal's black male athletes were among the students most in need of help from SAAS, the director's job should be filled by a qualified black male. The committee recommended six finalists, four of whom were black males. Although Duncan was not among the finalists, she was hired away from her job as an academic adviser at USC's business I school anyway.
Dennis says Duncan was selected after three others had rejected the job. "And I don't accept as a premise that black athletes would necessarily be better served by a black male," he says. "Students learn from a variety of people. I believe we have a number of black role models in the athletic department. To say any one position should be filled by a person of a certain ethnicity to facilitate learning, I don't accept."
Cobb's lawsuit has made the always sensitive issue of race more delicate at USC than at most universities. The irony is that Cobb is one of the best examples of a black who thrived both athletically and academically at the school. He earned an undergraduate degree in business in 1975 and played on four Trojan teams that won national championships—two in football and two in baseball. He spent five seasons as a defensive back for the Cincinnati Bengals, and after working for more than four years as a marketing representative at IBM, returned to USC in 1986 as an assistant athletic director. Among his duties were the counseling of student-athletes and the administering of the drug education and testing program. According to Cobb, athletic director Mike McGee had promised that within two years Cobb would be promoted to associate athletic director.
Cobb says that in 1987 he began asking McGee for more tutoring and more counseling for student-athletes, specifically for the blacks who were struggling. According to Cobb, McGee cited lack of funds in rejecting his requests. "He said that if the faculty and the staff of the university really understood how bad the problem was," says Cobb, "they would just vote to raise academic admission standards, become a Stanford of Southern California. So he chose to ignore the program altogether to avoid becoming the athletic director of a declining sports program."
McGee replies that, on the contrary, he has pushed for more funds for academic support services and to have SAAS placed under the jurisdiction of the athletic department, a move that would give him more control over the program and its budget. "This isn't to say that our system is perfect or that we've worked out all the problems of helping student-athletes reach their potential," McGee says. "But there is no racial bias or any attempt to minimize the needs of our student-athletes."
Two years after being hired, Cobb asked McGee about the promised promotion. Cobb says McGee told him "the political climate is not conducive to promoting you to associate athletic director." McGee refuses to discuss the reasons he denied Cobb a promotion. But he does say, "In my 20 years of being a supervisor, I've never been accused of racial bias."
A week after the lawsuit was filed, a friend of Cobb's who works in the athletic department handed him a memo addressed to McGee from Mike Gillespie, the Trojan baseball coach, and members of his staff. In the memo Gillespie offered to frame Cobb on drug charges, a remark Gillespie later said was meant to be a joke. This is the text of the memo:
"Please be informed that you have at least the moral support of your loyal baseball staff in your pending litigation with the Assistant Athletic Director. If it will help, Detective Klein is willing to bury him with a phony drug bust. P.S. Promote me to head football coach with a guaranteed L.A. Gear shoe contract or the Association of Americans of Scotch-Irish Descent will have you in court also." The mention of "Detective Klein" was a reference to Rob Klein, a volunteer assistant baseball coach at USC who is also a Los Angeles deputy sheriff.
Cobb didn't take the memo as a joke. He believes his situation, and that of black athletes at USC, is too serious. "My intention was never to bring down the school I played for and spent 20 years bragging about," he says. "But USC and a lot of schools like it aren't holding up their end of the bargain to a lot of black athletes. The issue to look at is not whether USC kept its promise to me about a promotion. It's whether universities are keeping their promise to black athletes about an education."