Athletes Need Education for Life, Not Eligibility at Any Cost

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

December 10, 2012

"Oh, so you're the person who keeps all the players eligible." I often hear that when I meet someone for the first time and the conversation turns to what I do for a living. Even after 18 years as an academic professional in college athletics, I still cringe when I hear it. But my response is immediate: "No, we're the ones who challenge them to compete at the highest level in all they do, graduate, and become high achievers in life." The raised eyebrows indicate that the limited view that most people have of the student-athlete experience has just been broadened.

Most universities have athletics programs that provide competitive opportunities, serve as a source of pride and provide a gathering place for university faculty, students, and alumni, and develop well-prepared leaders in our society. The NCAA reports that 82 percent of Division I athletes graduate within six years, and on most campuses there is a healthy balance of athletics performance, life lessons, and academic achievement aimed at producing a well-rounded adult.

However, in the Division I high-revenue sports of football and men's basketball, and especially at the top-level football programs­, there is a culture clash over that student-athlete balance. This football season at Arizona State University, for example, our football team played consecutive Thursday-night games, resulting in four days of missed class during midterms. Several conferences, in an effort to gain exposure among potential recruits, now play on national television on weeknights. In the sports media, Bowl Championship Series rankings, conference championship games, and bowl invitations dominate the airwaves.

This is big business—and with big business comes big pressure to win. Fail to meet the mark, and the head coach and maybe his entire staff lose their jobs. Institutions will pay out any remaining contract balance and come up with additional money to pay for a new coaching staff, often at a significantly higher rate. It does sound more like a write-up for a business journal than an issue related to educating and empowering students. The pressure is also felt in the academic-support offices. Decades ago, as the NCAA advanced its mandate that institutions make a greater commitment to graduate their athletes, athletics programs were required to create academic-support arms. Amid academic scandals in the 1980s and a continued emphasis on the importance of higher education, the first major wave of academic reform began with specific initial-eligibility standards for all athletes.

Those reform measures, adopted with some controversy, were modified because of concerns about their impact on minority students. They led to other reforms, which included real-time sanctions for poor academic performance. Some people argue that the reform measures—together with big TV money, pressure to win, relaxed admissions standards (some athletes who score 400 or more points below a college's average SAT score are nonetheless admitted), and the resulting less-engaged students—have created the perfect environment for consistent violations of the universities' and NCAA's academic codes.

While I will be the first to admit that the pressures of the system have played a role in recent academic-misconduct cases, the perception that all of college sports is broken and that there is rampant academic misconduct must be balanced by the fact that these cases involved only the high-revenue sports. Female athletes, for example, are among the highest achievers in all postsecondary education, and most male athletes are doing fine. But at the top levels of football and men's basketball, hypersensationalism abounds, and the public is led to believe that these young men are all "mini-pros," getting ready to go to the NFL or NBA, and that their academic advisers are "eligibility clerks" who simply find the easiest ways, at any cost, to keep them on the field of play.

Being aware of this, we in the academic-advising community that supports student-athletes' development must make an extra effort to be clear in our mission. We must:

  • Orient athletes to the university and quickly assist in the development of strong values for academic, community, and personal development.
  • Systematically assess entering athletes for academic preparedness.
  • Identify the highest-risk athletes and create individualized plans to support and develop them as effective learners.
  • Adopt structured study programs that will also serve other at-risk athletes.
  • Use university and department tutorial resources to maximize learning.
  • Monitor academic performance and engage coaches in partnership toward academic achievement.
  • Demand the best from our students, challenging them to develop critical life skills.

A college athlete's eligibility should be a byproduct of the systematic approach outlined above. If we focus on helping the student understand the value of his degree, and provide the proper academic and life-skill development opportunities, then we will succeed.

Things go awry when there are no partnerships, or when partnerships break down: When the pressure on coaches to win causes them to manipulate admissions protocols, and when university administrations lower their standards too far. Or when there is not a culture of academic accountability within an athletics program, or a commitment to provide the support required to manage every single at-risk student.

This is true not just on Division I campuses but also for smaller-budget colleges, some of which have been penalized by the NCAA, in part because they cannot provide academic support to proportionally larger numbers of at-risk students.

Whether at Division I universities or at smaller-budget colleges, if academic advisers within athletics departments are to avoid being made scapegoats, as the people who "keep 'em eligible" and would do so at all costs, we must be above reproach in our academic support for our students, without providing improper intervention.

At the same time, our institutions—from the presidents to the student-athletes themselves—must be committed partners in the business of academic as well as athletic development. And we cannot be afraid to discuss the elements of the system that are in conflict with the mission of turning out well-rounded graduates, no matter how much money is on the table.

Jean Boyd is senior associate athletic director for the office of student-athlete development at Arizona State University.