Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Reading, writing, and recruiting

Posted by digglahhh on 7 April 2007

No discussion of higher education, graduation rates and the dumbing-down of universities would be complete without consideration of the oxymoronic euphemism, “student athlete.” This is not to say that all student athletes are students by label alone, but a substantial number of the most visible, successful and revenue-producing ones are. It turns out this should come as no surprise. Many up and coming NBA stars probably went to a Potemkin Village high school where only the basketball court was real. First, let’s look at those graduation rates.

The most recent episode of HBO’s Costas Now featured a story about the loose academic requirements and special treatment afforded to athletes who play for major collegiate teams (mainly basketball and football) and the pressure, economic and otherwise, put on professors to pass those athletes, in effect, on the basis of their athletic instead of academic performance.

A roundtable discussion on the poor graduation rates of student athletes followed, in which we saw Costas exhibit an increasingly rare journalistic acumen. When NCAA President, Myles Brand crowed that student athletes had higher graduation rates than students overall, Costas called out the apples to oranges analogy, noting that students frequently leave school for non-academic reasons that range from career opportunities (as was the case with Costas himself during his senior year at Syracuse) to financial burdens.

Brand continued to talk about student athletes on the whole. Once again, Costas admonished him for quoting the statistics in a manner that groups Ivy League fencing teams with Big East basketball teams. The bottom line is that several perennial college basketball and football powerhouses graduate fewer than half of their players. The roster of the UNLV’s 1990-91 undefeated basketball team can boast more Final Four appearances than degrees. Not surprisingly, UNLV soon found themselves in some pretty hot water ranging from gambling to booster scandals. (I self-nominate that sentence for pun of the month; take a look at this photo of three of the members of that UNLV basketball team in a jacuzzi with Gambino Family member Richie “The Fixer” Perry.)

These student athletes arrive at college able to solve the half court trap. But do they come qualified to solve a quadratic equation? As it turns out, more and more of them never see one in high school, coming, as they do, from fly-by-night, storefront prep schools.

Yes, prep schools, though not those stiflingly proper institutions where seersucker-clad young Republicans are sent to hobnob with other future subjects of Michael Moore documentaries, where Oliver was taught not to fall in love with girls like Jenny, where Gene and Phineas made their separate peace. After all, I doubt, even, if Finny were able to dunk from the free throw line, he probably would have considered it unsporting…

The baskeball prep-school mill was the focus recently of HBO’s other sports journalism show, the phenomenal Real Sports. It recently featured a story that will be disturbing to anyone except, well, the strictest caveat-emptor libertarian subject of a Michael Moore documentary. In many states, the process of starting up a private school is incredibly simple. So, spirited entrepreneurs assemble high school Dream Teams and then create a school for them to attend. These schools are often nothing more than warehouses with a few chairs and a chalkboard (probably used primarily for diagramming defensive schemes, not equations). Academics barely exist, if at all. But, there’s more.

The NCAA’s academic requirements are based on a sliding scale of G.P.A. and S.A.T scores. The higher a student’s G.P.A., the lower he needs to score on his SATs to be granted academic eligibility. At a 3.55, a student literally does not need to answer a single SAT question correctly to meet the NCAA’s academic standards. So, the stupider your power forward, the more you have to inflate his grades.

NCAA review boards eventually investigate these schools, but by that time the adroit founders have packed up and moved to a different location, with a different name and a new set of 6’5” fifteen year olds who for whom it is easier to reverse dunk than calculate the hoop’s circumference. For one school that Real Sports looked into, the NCAA announced that it completed an investigation and would no longer be honoring its transcripts. The school had been closed down for over a year.

Meanwhile, the morally bankrupt venture capitalists who organize these schools profit from their next nationally known high school basketball team,are playing the role of mentor to young men in fractured living situations with the athletic talent to become multi-millionaires.

Both episodes of these shows are currently available on HBO On-Demand, for those who have it.

A lot of times we find ourselves asking questions unprepared for their disturbing answers. For many of these “student” athletes, how they got into college in the first place is one of them.

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5 Responses to “Reading, writing, and recruiting”

  1. Blue Athena said

    I was once a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course at a nationally well regarded university. I was shocked to find a student in my class was clearly illiterate by any normal standards. He was, of course, a member of the football team. Fear caused the instructor to give this student a D- rather than the deserved F for which I fought. An unrelated tragedy kept me from being present for the final grade presentations.

    I always wondered how this kid got into the college in the first place. I assumed he had someone else sit for his SATs. But maybe that wasn’t necessary if some obscene quirk allowed him to enter without any standardized exams at all. He must have been out of the university by the end of the year anyway, as even scared instructors handing out Ds won’t keep you in an respectable college for long.

    And the cruel joke was then not just against the university, but against also this student, who is unlikely to have achieved his football career in a single semester at college. And only late did he have to face the truth of his own illiteracy. Then again, what what do I know, maybe he’s pro now — I’ll admit to my own illiteracy on the subject of football.

  2. Swanny said

    There is some debate in Columbus as to whether or not Tressel’s World is indeed the actual blog of Ohio State Football coach Jim Tressel.

    On a serious note, it is criminal what happens to those kids. One of the reasons I always respected bad boy coach Bobby Knight was his 80% graduation rate for players when he was at Indiana.

    The fact is that in NCAA Division 1A Football there are 116 programs at roughly 12-13,000 players. Each year in the NFL draft about 250 players are chosen: 2%. 2 out of every 100 players.

  3. digglahhh said

    I have mixed feelings on Knight. One could argue that the transformation of the public perception of his antics from amusing but mildly disturbing to offensive and downright abusive coincided with the era of self-entitlement, large scale early entry to the NBA draft and hundred million dollar salaries and endorsement deals. That is to say, as the players become more self absorbed, they grew resentment for authority of any sort, collegiate basketball deity or not.

    Isiah Thomas had it as rough as anybody growing up and he credits Bobby Knight with developing him into the employee molesting, franchise destroying double-talker he is today… Seriously, Thomas credits much of his success as a person and athlete to the positive attributes instilled in him by Coach Knight.

    Bobby Knight is as polarizing a figure in the sports world and perhaps his saga is about a little more than just Bobby Knight. Maybe you can only hold your team on a leash as short as, well, their shorts.

  4. Swanny said

    You are not giving Isiah nearly enough credit: he destroyed an entire league in the CBA!

    As far as a franchise, the one he came to was dead when he got here (thank you Scott Layden, may you rot in hell), but he hasn’t made any moves to help it.

    The thing is there were very few complaints about the General from his players. Most of the complaints came from pundits and the university itself (which was based on jealousy over the power he had there). The final incident that did him in at Indiana was a joke. Myles was out to get him from the moment he rode into Bloomington.

    But, he’s probably better off out in Lubbock nowadays anyway. The kids there are probably closer in temperament and upbringing to the teams that he coached at Indiana than the current crop walking into Assembly Hall.

  5. […] introduce herself to Pacman Jones or Tank Johnson. She might also want to educate herself about the dark underside of recruiting and academic eligibility slight-of-hand often used to siphon top high school athletes into […]

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