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Viewpoints: Education must be a top priority for college athletes

By Wes Carter
We are in another season of college sports, especially football, and discussions and debates will continue about the right of athletes to be paid for the entertainment they provide and the personal sacrifices they make. That will be important of course, but there is another aspect of the game to which we seem to pay so little attention nationally, and that is the quality of education for all young athletes, their personal development – behavior, personality, character – and their preparation for life. Nowhere is this concern more in evidence than in the college classroom.
Recently, an old colleague was complaining about the last year being the worst year that he had ever had. He expressed concern over the caliber of students in general, but particularly about the athletes and their seeming lack of interest in academics. He theorized that far too many had never written a paper in their lives, and if he had had to pay closer attention to English they would have failed.
While he was talking, I was recalling my own experiences and the number of athletes I had taught over the years. I remember well the missed classes, the ice packs, dislocated shoulders: some athletes to suffer for a lifetime. Still, I thought that I was a bit more fortunate, academically speaking, than my friend.
Most of the athletes I instructed at least had an interest in graduating, so it wasn’t the ordinary athlete like the ordinary student that I was concerned about, but a small cadre of recruits who were ill-prepared to do college work. Their lack of preparation led them to spend more time perfecting their sport than it did their perfecting the academics that would ultimately determine their success. No doubt this was the type of student who was giving him the most difficulty. Whenever I encountered an athlete (generally my football players) who favored the practice field over the classroom, or who squandered valuable academic hours trying to get to the pros, I would set him the task of researching our local colleges and universities to see how many athletes were successful in being recruited by the pros, and then compare that with the larger number who actually tried and failed. The results of their inquiries were easily predictable, along with a real-world enlightenment for the dreamer. In addition, I used to tell my athletes a story about a star running back in high school, college and finally with the San Diego Chargers. It was only after he retired from pro sports that the world became aware of his inability to read or write. As I write today, this story is still unbelievable. Nevertheless, if anyone has any concerns about the education that we provide for college athletes, it should be for the number of young boys today who are to some degree following in the footsteps of that pro player. As for our running back, he ended his career where it should have begun in the first place: sitting in an elementary classroom and learning for the first time his ABCs.
In today’s climate of sport, it is easy for the above to occur, though one hopes that it doesn’t occur too often or to that extreme. But coaches are hired and paid good salaries to win, so when they recruit, it is with the intent to get the best physical, but not always the best academic, talent. Some even engage in the egregious practice of recruiting from the poorest neighborhoods, because the kids are “street tough and battle ready.” And the kids are willing to sacrifice mind and body for an opportunity to get away from their surroundings while believing that the best is being done for them when, in fact, they are just being used. So, regardless of how philosophical we like to think ourselves about education and learning: sports for far too many come first and fake academics the means to that end, which raises questions about an institution’s responsibility to the young athlete, which should be “to recruit, to play, to graduate.” College sports considered, there should be no other goal, because the athlete who is recruited and admitted with nothing, meaning academic skills to do the work, will likely leave with nothing, meaning no degree and little in the way of a future. This is one part of college football and collegiate sports that must be changed.
There is, however, a blessing in all this in that all athletes and their programs are not alike.
The young men who play for some notable Division I bowl-bound teams are graduating within the allotted six academic years and at a rate in excess of the regular student bodies at their respective schools, according to the NCAA’s yearly progress reports. It’s the rates of graduation that tell the real story, not the number of touchdowns scored or bowl games won, and schools like Northwestern, Duke, Stanford and Notre Dame seem to play the academic plus the sports games well. They seem to care as much about the success of their athletes as they do the success of their regular student enrollees. Their football graduation rates are above 93 percent for all football athletes and 94 percent for their African-American players, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
All this compares favorably to our first ever national playoff champion Ohio State Buckeyes, who will graduate approximately 40 percent of players. Could it be that the better schools incorporate the ability of their recruits to read, write and think as well as to run, catch and throw? The University of Nebraska also seems to think that is important. Through its PEO program, some effort is now being made to provide internships for the football players whose playing days are over, and who desire careers and/or a chance to go on to graduate school. In programs such as this, their athletes should do fine, but for the larger percentage of programs nationwide, there is still a mountain (graduation day) to climb.

Wes Carter is a former member of the University at Buffalo faculty.

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