On The Butler-Duke Final: Is Academic Excellence So Difficult To Combine With Athletics?

April 6, 2010, 12:46 pm

What the Los Angeles Times dubbed the final between “feel good Butler” and “real good” Duke turned out to be tighter than everyone thought, although I missed the game for an evening lecture at Zenith. When I am Director of the World, no lectures will be held on the evening of an important National Championship. Think about this when you are casting your vote.

But this brings me to a topic: the jaws that have dropped all over the country that two schools with a 90% team graduation rate made it through the bracket to the Big Game. Of course, Duke has been doing this for decades, but Butler was more of a shocker, since they operate as a good-sized liberal arts college (about 1,000 students more than Zenith) and have a basketball budget a tenth the size of Duke’s (probably eight times the size of Zenith’s, but now I’m guessing.) Of course, Butler draws on a local midwestern population where the public schools are good and childbirth is always a struggle because the little tykes come out with basketballs in their hands, but still. It was a big deal.

Add to this Cornell making the Sweet Sixteen, and there has been a general fluttering this year about the capacity of a few students to overcome their studying habits and press on to play championship basketball.

Of course, we already knew women could do this, right? But we take it for granted that most young men won’t, and that tolerance for high levels of misbehavior and academic failure are part of the price a university must pay for athletic excellence (i.e., a team whose gear people will buy and that will bring home sumptuous television contracts that can be plowed back into more athletic facilities.)

Like so many things about university life, these tradeoffs are cynical and unnecessary: it is that old problem of assuming that things are as they seem. We talk about the “culture” of big time sports, as if we were anthropologists in The Land That Time Forgot, rather than looking at how we might change programs where the athletes are not doing college level work and are spending their spare time wreaking havoc on other students. Furthermore, if you look at schools that have a low graduation rate for their big budget teams, you often see overall low graduation rates, and students not able to get into the classes they need to attain the BA in four years. I remember a few years back when it was revealed that a Big Southern Football Power had a graduation rate of well under 10% for its national championship football team, but guess what? The university as a whole was under 40% for a BA in six years. And the team has not repeated its championship performance either, as its star players drifted off campus, mostly to the various forms of unemployment you are vulnerable to without an education or a pro contract. Hence, a few (not so very radical) thoughts for the NCAA about the relationship between athletics and education.

Athletic graduation rates are the canary in the coal mine. If a school does not value its student-athletes, and does not hold them to a high standard, that says something about how they value all their undergraduates. Are classes merely seen as a chore that students slog their way through on their way to the alumni association, or is there care taken to structure majors, provide the classes and advising students need, and support the development of academic skills? When athletes are caught in off the field criminal and social scandals, what does that say about the atmosphere that is more generally tolerated on campus by student organizations, Greeks, and the campus administration? Are adults even on campus after Thursday afternoon?

A baseline of academic discipline is a good indicator that athletes will be disciplined in their training habits as well. Learning to defer gratification, manage one’s own time, set priorities and have healthy sleep, eating and sexual habits is part of what it means to be a grownup. It is these skills that get a young person through, either in the case of unbelievable celebrity (a scenario for a fraction of student athletes); ongoing pressure (a scenario for all college students including athletes); or a setback (an injury, illness, or surprising failure.) I asked my friend Tim, who went from my class at Oligarch University to the NFL, and was one of the most disciplined students I knew, what got him through a lab science major and varsity football. He smiled and said, “Well, when I had work I needed to do, I would just tell the coach I couldn’t come to practice for a couple days.” Because Tim was trusted by his coach to give 110% wherever he was, he managed his own life and he managed it well. What would college sports look like if everyone did this?

College coaches could keep their athletes in school by having an expectation that their athletes had taken high school seriously too. Each athlete should have a letter of recommendation from a teacher that speaks to this; on recruiting visits, a coach could take the time to talk to this teacher personally. Furthermore, students that were bounced around from high school to high school to get more starting time, either of their own volition or because of a parent’s wishes, should be scrutinized more closely. These are the kids who, I would expect, could be guaranteed not to take school seriously because – why should they? It has never even been as important as their athletics, and they can’t be expected to have developed that value system yet. Furthermore, why should they stay in college for any longer than it takes to get a contract or to get hurt? They never have gone to a school to be in school, so how would they even know what that means?

When college coaches, administrators, and alumni cheat and make excuses for themselves, athletes do too. And cheaters never prosper. Oh yeah, maybe for a season. But not for long. Building an athletic program, and building a college, is about the long term, not throwing the dice every year and praying it doesn’t come up snake-eyes.

Intelligence, and being able to activate your intelligence in productive ways, matters, no matter what you are doing is a college skill. The notion of the “dumb jock” was invented by people who have never been successful athletes (or perhaps athletes at all.) It is true, the further you get away from money-making sports, the more intelligent people seem to be: crew, track, wrestling, squash, and many other sports that have modestly paid career dividends seem to be full of kids who go on to interesting non-athletic careers (or the very modestly paid coaching gigs their sport offers.) But one wonders whether the low academic expectations attached to the big money sports, not to mention coaches steering athletes away from challenging courses and majors, don’t have more to do with the bad academic and career outcomes for these students than does lack of intelligence. Look at what these kids do on the field. A successful college linebacker not only has to memorize a vast strategic plan, he has to be a leader, be able to reorganize that plan on the spur of the moment, and process a tremendous amount of information in a matter of seconds depending on what is unfolding before him. That man may be many things, but he isn’t dumb.

My advice to the NCAA is to refuse the notion that Duke and Butler hav
e pulled off something exceptional, or that they are able to do it because they are private, not public colleges. To believe that is to undervalue what education — and particularly public education — ought to be; indeed, it refuses what it is, in many places. The truth is what they do can be achieved by everyone if the connection between athletics and education is a productive one that does not exploit the athletic labor of young people at the expense of teaching them.

And for my commenters who view these thoughts as simply naive? Show me the research demonstrating that athletic excellence is hindered by academic achievement, and I will post a picture of myself eating my UConn women’s basketball hat.

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