Educating College Athletes

David Petina

March 1, 1990

That many college athletes are poorly prepared for life after college is something that few will dispute. Some experts have gone as far as saying that most college stars are unprepared for anything but a professional sports career that only two to three percent of them will ever achieve. At the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) convention, held last December, the educators finally began taking steps to insure that athletes receive an education in something besides their chosen sport. Among the resolutions passes was one calling for a shorter basketball season, another cutting the length of spring football practices, and a third requiring that schools make public their institution’s graduation rate among athletes and compare this with the rate for the student body as a whole. While these resolutions are admirable, and overdue, they still do not go far enough and may allow some "student athletes" to graduate without an education adequate for anything but an athletic career.

One prime example of the ineptitude which currently prevails at many schools is Ron Harmon, a former running back for the University of Iowa. During his days as a "student athlete," Harmon’s course load included courses such as bowling, billiards and watercolor painting. While there is nothing wrong with taking courses such as these for diversion in order to broaden your horizons, it is utterly ridiculous to build a course study around them as Harmon did while pursuing a degree in physical education—which he did not manage to finish. Another example is Dexter Manley, a former defensive end for the Washington Redskins, who left Oklahoma State University after four years illiterate, unable even to read about his accolades in the sports page on Monday morning. I do respect Manley for admitting his problem and going back to school to learn to read; however, his case is a pitiful reflection of the "education" athletes receive at far too many institutions. Unfortunately the only thing separating Harmon and Manley from many scholar athletes is talent; they possessed enough to go on—most do not.

The sorry situations outlined above are the exception rather than the rule at both Duke and Notre Dame, schools noted for their academics as well as their athletics. Notre Dame has won or shared the award given to major colleges which graduate the greatest proportion of their athletes four times since 1981; Duke has done the same three times in this period. Both schools require athletes to take a full academic load, so that they can graduate on time. At both institutions the admissions office, not the athletic department, has the final say as to which recruits will attend the institution, thus assuring that all student athletes are adequately prepared for course work at the school. Also, each university has higher requirements for their incoming athletes than the NCAA mandates. At Notre Dame for example the incoming freshman athletes must have taken 14 to 16 college preparatory units in high school, the NCAA requires 9. Neither institution redshirts their athletes, a practice which gives many competitors at other schools five years to complete their studies. The lack of redshirting at Duke and Notre Dame forces athletes to graduate in the four years during which they are eligible to play their sport or pay for any additional schooling that they require. Finally, neither school has athletic dorms or physical education majors; this forces athletes and non-athletes to meet in more social and academic settings, making athletes more a part of everyday campus life. These schools illustrate that winning at sports and educating the sportsmen are not mutually exclusive.

In addition to adopting many of the tenants of Notre Dame and Duke’s programs, many experts feel that eliminating freshman eligibility, a policy instituted in 1972, is another step that needs to be taken. These experts feel that this policy has benefited only the schools. Under the current system, schools pay a player’s bills for four years and get four years of playing time from them. Before freshman eligibility, schools paid for four years and got only three years of participation in athletics. The experts say that by taking this step, the NCAA would allow athletes one year to adjust to life on campus and to get used to the more difficult course work required at a university, before taking on the added responsibility of participating in intercollegiate athletics. Detractors point out that freshman are eligible to participate in other extra-curricular activities, like the band, the chess club and intramurals, and therefore they should be allowed to play intercollegiate sports. Banning freshman eligibility, its supporters say, would discriminate against student athletes. The flaw in this reasoning is that while in very rare cases the other activities take as much time as the practices, games, and road trips required of athletes, they do not require the participant to miss large blocks of class time as athletics often do. Far from discriminating against the athletes, getting rid of freshman eligibility will allow them to be better students and, by letting them mature both physically and emotionally for a year, better athletes.

While the education of athletes at many schools is poor, Duke and Notre Dame provide examples of schools where education and winning athletics go hand in hand. Though the recent NCAA convention took several very solid steps, its reforms did not go nearly far enough. Forcing schools to raise their requirements for incoming athletes, eliminating physical education majors and athletic dorms like the two schools above is the bare minimum that the NCAA should impose on schools. A better proposal would be to scrap freshman eligibility as well. These measures would allow schools to once again create student athletes who will be prepared to continue as useful members of society once their playing days are finished.