06 July 2008

The Rivalry - Debates on Draft

Student + Athlete = Oxymoron?

Should student athletes be subjected to standard admissions criterion when applying to undergraduate institutions?


If you're South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier, you're concerned. You're concerned that the 5-star wideout you just spent a pleasant weekend recruiting in Briny Breezes, Florida might not be a future Nobel Laureate. This might have something to do with the fact that after telling him you think he has a future at USC, he responds "But I want to play for South Carolina."

Still, after a thorough review of his high school file it's clear he'll make the NCAA cut for eligibility -- so, you offer him a scholarship and he pledges to come early.

A few months down the road you learn he was rejected, not by the NCAA, but by your own admissions department (apparently administrators frown on grade point averages that read like blood alcohol levels). Enraged, you make a phone call to the school president. But there's nothing he can do.

So, you call a press conference, slam your visor on the news desk and demand lower admissions standards or you're through.

The Southeastern Conference was listening. Last week they announced a uniform relaxation in their admissions fabric to perfectly mirror the NCAA minimum clearinghouse lows (see http://fanblogs.com/sec/007610.php). This rock-bottom approach now allows non-qualifying players probationary access to campus, where they're required to get their grades up in order to play.

Something tells me that Nick Saban, yes, the same Nick Saban who last year preemptively attacked Jim Leavitt and the South Florida Bulls for eating out of the SEC dumb recruits dumpster will rejoice the new across the board "parity."

But is this the right answer? By circumventing standard admissions requirements the SEC has effectively created a double-standard for its member institutions. To the casual observer, the message is clear: Want to go to Vandy? Pick up a football.

The end result is that critics of the cancerous cash cow they see as college sports have a whole lot more to complain about. After all, it's their honors student that just got waitlisted at Michigan while some guy with a 500 pound bench and a 1.8 G.P.A. prepares to enroll. To avoid the double-standard, I'll argue that colleges should input extraordinary athletic talent as a soft factor in their admissions formulas on the basis that kinesthetic intelligence is important to creating a diverse learning environment, just like race, sex, and life experience.

Because it's impossible to talk about this one without at least mentioning Gratz and Grutter...

Gratz v. Bollinger, and Grutter v. Bollinger are two related equal protection cases dealt with concurrently by the United States Supreme Court in 2003. Both challenged the constitutionality of a University of Michigan affirmative action admissions policy (the former, at the Undergraduate College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and the later, at the College of Law) that provided certain ethnic minorities positive consideration by virtue of their race.

The justification Michigan gave for the policy: diversity is an essential part of the learning experience.

And the Supreme Court's response: yes, and no. It's permissible they reasoned, in a small class environment like a law school (prone to scrutinizing every application), for race to be introduced as a soft factor.  But, this kind of critical evaluation is more difficult in the undergraduate context, where the admissions system is an automated points index.

Now why do I bring this up? It's because some smartass (Michael Wilt) is going to try to throw Gratz in my face, arguing that the very system I'm about to propose is unconstitutional.

One of the nice things about going to law school is you learn the value of anticipation.  Here, when I talk about extraordinary athletic ability, I'm not referring to an immutable characteristic -- something a person can't change -- like race or sex. Because none of these kinds of "suspect classifications," are invoked when we discuss people who run and throw better than you and I, a court charged with examining the issue would use a lower standard of review than the one invoked in Gratz. This makes the proposal all the more plausible.

Intelligence, Reframed

In his landmark 1983 text, Frames of Mind, Harvard Psychologist Howard Gardner proposed a theory of multiple intelligences. According to Gardner, and contrary to popular belief intelligence is not a single property of the human mind. By contrast, everyone is endowed with a unique set of "intelligences" which they can put to use in different ways. Gardner came up with seven: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

"Want to go to Vandy?  Pick up a football."

So what -- we know we're different -- what's the big deal? Well, Gardner argues that in the context of education we only truly value one: linguistics. The curator of the spoken and written word is glorified in the classroom while the physically adept are frustrated and embarrassed.

The problem with the classic model of liberal education is that our institutions aren't built to accommodate alternative abilities. If you "cant read good" in First grade, the likelihood is that you'll turn to extracurricular pursuits (say blacktop basketball) to build confidence. By the time you reach high school, the school/bad, sports/good dichotomy is far too engrained to be overcome by the words of nineteenth-century aristocrats to whom you can't relate.

Then, you get a break. You're offered a scholarship to play football at South Carolina...

Wait, Jon, I thought you were arguing that student athletes should be required to meet minimum admissions standards. This guy doesn't have a chance...

You're right. But, I'm returning to the scenario I introduced at the outset to illustrate the problem with the current justifications.

Suppose the administration bends the rules to accommodate the recruit. They're lampooned for undermining the academic integrity of the institution.

Now suppose they do the opposite, take a hard-line stance, and reject him. The majority of FBS schools suddenly don't have a prayer of getting premiere talent. (Do you honestly think Charles Woodson could have gotten into Michigan on raw GPA and test scores alone?)

It should now be clear that Universities that field competitive programs are stuck: dammed if they do, and dammed if they don't.

But, there's an easy solution.

Say what you mean to say.

Rather than avoid the subject, or hide behind NCAA minimums, institutions of higher learning should embrace the reality that the presence of kinesthetic thinkers on campus adds to the collegiate experience for everyone.

Instead of shuttering at the prospect of a double standard, University administrations should input extraordinary athletic talent as a soft factor in the undergraduate admissions formula, on the level of race, sex, and life experience. This will give kinesthetically-motivated candidates a sizable boost.

Athletes who still can't make the cut should nonetheless be permitted to enroll to play football, as Associates degree candidates; an interdisciplinary program in life management skills created by the University specifically for them, and light-loaded to last up to four years (in tune with eligibility).

It may turn out that athletes, more comfortable with the flexible approach, will find success (perhaps for the first time) in the classroom environment. Those that maintain a certain GPA as an Associates degree candidate should be accepted to transfer onto the Bachelor's track as full-time students.

Unlike the standard NCAA framework, this modified approach will: 1. Allow colleges to get the best possible athletes across a level playing field, 2. Allow athletes who leave early for the NFL to graduate with a degree, 3. Make the traditional classroom learning environment more sensitive to alternative skill sets, 4. Provide an incentive for players to reflect on their future and accept full responsibility for their classroom performance, and 5. Ensure Universities maintain credibility as storied institutions of higher learning.


Kinesthetic intelligence. Grutz v. Bollinger. Institutions of higher learning. Athletic talent as a soft factor for admissions. 

These fancy terms and concepts are wonderful for a law journal or small talk at a get together for college professors, but they have little to do with the real issue at hand: Should young men, woefully under qualified and unprepared for collegiate academic life, be held up to some kind of illusory academic standard when they're offered an athletic scholarship?

The answer is unequivocally and emphatically no.  To say anything else is to play lip service to the tremendous hypocrisy that currently exists in the term “Student-Athlete.” Top recruits, especially football players, are signed up for one reason – and everyone knows it.  So instead of 1) setting some kind of weak academic line that the occasional unlucky recruit is sideswiped by and 2) using big terms like academic integrity…let’s concentrate on integrating college athletes into the campus atmosphere and focus on getting athletes into social settings where they can grow as people and students.

Kinesthetic Intelligence…But You’ll Never See It

Jon is very much correct in saying that athletes have tremendous kinesthetic intelligence.  If your brain can say “pump fake left, check off middle receiver, hot route open” in .8 seconds and your body can follow suit, you're doing something right.  And of course a college campus is a stronger campus with a student body that's diverse.

"Less hypocrisy.  More focus on the athlete's actual needs."

But Jon, how many male basketball and football players did you hang out with at Miami (OH)? I am guessing the number is low. Even more telling Jon; how many male basketball and football players did you consistently see at Miami (OH)? “Big School“ college athletes live a closed existence; they live together, follow a strict practice/game schedule, and when they attend class, do not traditionally use all that kinesthetic skill to bring anything special to the classroom.

All that kinesthetic energy so fondly spoke of is channeled toward one thing: becoming a better athlete and bringing athletic success to one’s alma mater. Athletes know their purpose at a school, especially the highly recruited, well known ones.

With the Purpose Known, Lip Service is Still Paid to Storied Academic Institutions

Jon would lead you to believe that athletes who don't qualify academically should be allowed into school as part of the diversification of the university and then given a special-tailored program to help them excel academically.  He seems to think this is a novel concept.

Athletes are allowed in through every exception imaginable. What if that 5 star wideout has a 1.9 high school GPA and your soft cutoff is 2.0? Send that 6 foot 4 ball of energy to summer classes and get him over that minimum GPA. Then cheer like there is no tomorrow while he is jumping over DB’s from Rival U, all the while claiming your school has held up its academic integrity. Student athletes and fans deserve a little more honesty and respect from administration.

A Simple Choice

For those who enjoy picking from options, here is what I feel like the options on the table are:

1. Continue with soft admissions and tailoring every possible advantage to getting unqualified recruits in, all the while claiming you are cultivating strong student athletes and upholding academic tradition. Allow schools like Notre Dame and Stanford to claim they cannot recruit top football recruits because they have standards. Force conferences, like the SEC, to lower their admission policy to the lowest possible threshold with the obvious goal of allowing more unqualified players in – but God, don’t let the SEC mention their true intentions. Make colleges have a goal of pulling athletic high schoolers over a mythical 2.0 GPA line so a school can uphold its mythical academic tradition.

2. Drop the Standard Admission Criteria farce. Allow colleges to recruit for top notch athletes, but force colleges to do a better job integrating their student-athletes into the community.  Take athletes in and take steps to make them productive members of the college campus instead of paid professionals. 

Sure it’s idealistic, but at least the focus will be put on strengthening college student athletes. Jon had a wonderful idea of starting the athlete’s in a lower level program and if they excel, bump them to a full scale BA program. If my plan had a tagline, it would be: “Less Hypocrisy, More Focus on the Athlete’s Actual Needs.”

Right now, every Nick Saban and Urban Meyer is discussing how to get Token 5 Star Recruit's GPA up one more point so he can come play football at their school. Once Token's GPA hits that GPA threshold, their entire focus is going to be on making him a stud athlete. This approach is not only hypocritical, but entirely harmful. So let's take the focus off a bright line GPA approach and put the focus on making the student athlete a productive member of the collegiate system and society.

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