Mr. Blow and Ms. Collins are off today, so Mr. Nocera is flying solo. In “Majoring in Eligibility” he says letting athletes who can barely read into college devalues the hard-earned degrees of everyone else. Here he is:
The lead article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week is about a University of Memphis football player named Dasmine Cathey. He lives not on campus but in his aunt’s home nearby, where he helps raise his siblings, who were essentially abandoned by their mother. He has two children of his own (with different mothers). He uses his Pell grant money to help pay the household bills and often skips class because he has to drive a family member somewhere. It’s a lot for a college student to shoulder, but he doesn’t shirk it.
College itself, however, is a different story. As an incoming freshman, Cathey could barely read, and academics remain a chore. His papers — a handful of which are posted on the Chronicle’s Web site — seem more like the work of a seventh grader than a college student. Among the courses he has failed are Family Communication and Yoga. His major is called “interdisciplinary studies.” As the article ends, the athletic department’s academic advisers are desperately trying to get him to go to class so he can graduate.
So while the article, written by Brad Wolverton, causes one to root for Cathey, who is a largely sympathetic figure, it also, inevitably, raises the question: How in the world did he get into college? But, of course, we know the answer to that. He is in college because, as one of his former coaches puts it, “He had all the tools you could ask for.” Football tools, that is.
In the months since I first began writing about the hypocrisy of the college sports establishment — I should note that Wolverton has written about my N.C.A.A. columns — I’ve heard one consistent refrain from readers. De-emphasize college sports, people have said; that’s the only way universities can reclaim their souls. Last month, when Buzz Bissinger, the author of the classic book, “Friday Night Lights,” wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Why College Football Should Be Banned,” a reader sent me the link with a short note. “This is the article you should have written,” it read.
I’ve been resistant to that solution because I think it is hopelessly naïve. College football and men’s basketball are huge businesses that are only going to be bigger: witness the way universities are inching toward a lucrative football playoff system, for instance. Anyone who really thinks college presidents will suddenly get religion and put education over sports is dreaming. Even if they wanted to, their regents wouldn’t let them.
Yet The Chronicle’s article makes you wonder: at what cost? The real point about Dasmine Cathey is that he is no anomaly. Since 2003, when the N.C.A.A. stopped mandating minimum S.A.T. or A.C.T. scores, university athletic departments have been accepting more and more “student-athletes” who can barely do high-school work, much less handle college. Universities have created their own academic underclass, whose job is to play football and basketball — and whose academic goal isn’t to actually learn anything but merely to stay eligible. Hence “interdisciplinary studies.”
“If I had a degree from Memphis, I would feel my degree was devalued knowing that this student was given a passing grade with those papers,” said Gerald Gurney, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Gurney has some serious scholarship in this arena. He spent 31 years in athletic departments, most recently as the leader of academic support at Oklahoma. Although he is still at the university, he is no longer connected to the athletic department. Instead, he’s become a critic of college sports.
“Since the N.C.A.A. changed the standards,” he continued, “the gap between the average ‘specially admitted’ athlete and the average student in the classroom has gotten tremendously larger. We now have a cottage industry of learning specialists for athletes. I am a purist,” he added. “I believe the value of a college education is to teach students to think critically. It shouldn’t be for remedial reading.”
When I asked Bissinger what should be done about this growing problem, his answer was — to my ears, at least — appealingly hardheaded. Pay the players their scholarship money in cash, he replied. If the players used that money to get an education, great. If they decided they would rather spend it on a car, so be it. That won’t satisfy the purists, I realize, but it has the benefit of being honest. It doesn’t devalue everyone else’s degree.
As for Dasmine Cathey, he told me that he was happy that he had gone to the University of Memphis. But he acknowledged that he “got more of a college experience than a college education.” Now working as a delivery man, he was determined to get those last few credits and graduate, he told me.
I congratulated him on learning to read. “Thanks,” he said. “The thing I have to work on now is understanding what I’m reading.”