A new scandal has shaken the foundations of American universities. At several major colleges, a stunning web of cunning arrangements, of covert pressures and under--the--table payoffs has resulted in a disgraceful sham that makes a mockery and indeed exposes the fulsome, tawdry fraud of the student--athlete ideals that these institutions so self--righteously proclaim in their insufferable official statements.
There have long been allegations that some coaches put pressure on professors to lower academic standards for top athletes. Scarcely a word has been said, however, about the opposite problem: professors putting pressure on coaches to allow brainy but athletically inept students to play for the varsity teams. Now it turns out that the latter is the more serious and widespread problem. Sometimes even the outcomes of bowl and tournament games have been altered because a coach yielded to faculty influence and gave a starting assignment to someone whose classroom performance may have been brilliant but who lacked the ability and background to perform effectively in sports.
At bottom, of course, the fierce competition among American universities for top students does create some understandable concerns on the part of the faculty and administrators. If these students are not permitted to play in the sports they desire, they might drop out or transfer elsewhere, and the university could lose its competitive edge. Professional careers of professors, vast sums of potential donations by alumni, and competitive rankings of university academic programs depend on the classroom performance of these top students, and if letting them start at power forward is necessary to retain their academic services, some university officials turn a blind eye.
``Competition to recruit National Merit Scholars is more intense now than it has ever been," observed one university spokesperson. ``I think most coaches are fair and honest about it, but I can't deny that pressures exist to allow some of these top students to play on the sports teams when they really haven't earned it. It wouldn't surprise me if there are some abuses."
The scandal first came to light at a Big Ten university three years ago. Several players on the football team complained to a reporter that such covert pressures were responsible for their being relegated to the bench in favor of another athlete who they felt lacked the requisite athletic ability. The student had achieved perfect scores on all math aptitude and achievement tests but was, at 5 foot 4 and 113 pounds, the smallest linebacker in the Big Ten and in fact made zero successful tackles despite starting in eight games. Critics also pointed out that this ``student athlete" walked with a limp and was extremely nearsighted. Said one of the other members of the team, ``I think the reason she was given the starting linebacker job had more to do with her being a math whiz than with her abilities to play football." The head coach declined to comment, but one of the assistant coaches angrily voiced sharp criticism that the academic competition at American universities had gotten out of hand and was threatening the integrity and compromising the very mission of the sports programs.
Administrations share the blame, especially if they fail to vigorously uphold the importance of the athletic program and the autonomy of each coach. The worst problems have arisen at schools where there is undue emphasis on big--time intellectual work, such as certain Ivy League schools. The excessive clout wielded by top smarty--pants professors at such institutions enables them to exert strong influence on the sports programs, who are often powerless to resist. One coach observed, ``You want to treat every athlete equally and only play the ones who perform best. You tell yourself, fair play is the very foundation of sports. Whoever earns it in practice gets to play in the big games. But then you start getting the angry phone calls, the hate mail, the subtle pressures from even your friends saying `Why can't you just let so--and--so play more minutes?' and of course these are always about someone who's got straight A's in physics. You never get that kind of pressure over a sociology major with a C minus average."
A few voices have defended these coaches as merely being sympathetic to students who are in a difficult situation. The heavy demands of top--level schoolwork cannot help but take vital time and energy -- some critics say too much -- away from sports. Said one coach, ``I mean, you take somebody who's trying to graduate from Princeton with `summa' in chemistry, it's like a full time job. Classes every day, long hours in the lab, homework every night, weekends too, review sessions, trying to publish. It's no wonder that when the student finally shows up for football practice, he's tired and distracted and can't give 100\% like some of the others. You feel sorry for these kids and want to cut them some slack."
Added to this is the fact that many sycophantic coaches are eager to curry favor with famous professors whom they idolize. College sports coaches (often intellectual wannabes themselves) spend much of their free time in the offseason reading the scholarly publications by their university's faculty. They feel starstruck when one of their heroes calls to request special treatment for a favorite student, and they are only too happy to oblige.
Reformers have suggested closer scrutiny and tighter standards for college athletic participation, but last year these proposals elicited vehement protests from an unexpected source. The National Caucus of Jewish Basketball Coaches threatened a boycott, saying that the proposed athletic reforms could mean the death knell for the hoop dreams of many Jewish boys and girls. They noted that, historically speaking, intellectual ability has been the only way that many Jewish students could gain access to a university, where they can finally obtain a meaningful opportunity to play basketball.
In the end, so what? Who is the loser? Of course the reduced quality of play means that the teams lose, as well as the fans, the media, the advertising sponsors, and many others. But most of all it is the student athletes themselves who suffer the consequences. These disgraceful shenanigans ultimately undermine a university's ability to prepare students for real life. Under such a system, they end up leaving the university with good academic credentials but quite unprepared to compete athletically. As one athletic director in the ACC put it: ``I don't care how good you are at chemistry, your starting salary won't be one--tenth of what they get in the NFL or NBA. If we relax our standards to let people play sports in college when they aren't capable or ready, they won't be ready to compete in the real world."
The same individual went on to put the matter in its proper perspective: ``Math and literature are fine in their place, especially in an ivory tower. But all you have to do is to pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV to see that what really matters in America today, out in the real world, is sports." It will be a national tragedy if our nation's universities lose sight of this truth.