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Athletes make academic end run

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Athletes make academic end run

Posted by kbooth March 30, 2007 1:14 PM


News staff writer

The class was easy enough for Ahmad Childress, then a University of Alabama football player: Write about football.

Classroom GPAFor three credits one summer, Childress said, he and five teammates composed an entire football class that required only instructing a football camp for kids in Gulf Shores and writing a four-page essay.

"That was the whole class. I got an A," Childress said. "Yeah, it was a little weird, but sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do to be eligible."

In the world of big-time college athletics, eligibility can trump education. The pressure to win ball games and make money creates, for better and for worse, a special path for some athletes to remain academically eligible to play.

That path is lined with fancy academic centers for athletes and a support army of academic advisers and tutors.

It is marked also with easy classes to which some athletes gravitate.

The so-called "jock majors" vary by school, based on an analysis by The Birmingham News of majors listed in football media guides at Alabama, Auburn University and UAB during the past four years.

At Auburn, the most popular football major is sociology, accounting for 17 percent of the team's declared majors. This season, football players are 35 times more likely to major in sociology than the student body. Less than 1 percent of the student body chooses that major.

Since summer, Auburn has been investigating the expanded number of directed-reading courses in sociology and some other fields - courses that produced mostly high grades. Two professors have resigned.

At Alabama, the most popular football major is general studies in the College of Human Environmental Sciences (Home Ec). Twenty-six percent of football players majored in general studies in HES compared with 2 percent of all Alabama students.

UAB football players gravitate to history (22 percent), communication studies (16 percent) and criminal justice (15 percent). Those majors represent 2 percent, 4 percent and 3 percent of the student body, respectively.

The clustering of athletes in certain majors isn't necessarily unethical or against a university's policy, and is common on most campuses.

"I don't know why anybody in the world would expect the students who arrive with lesser academic credentials not to end up in the easiest majors," said University of Alabama law Professor Gene Marsh, the school's former faculty athletics representative. Why does he get a pass for sayinmg this and CTT would get burned at the stake?

"But people who say it's OK to end up with athletes huddled in particular majors because of their time demands don't understand reality. There are many students working many hours a week in part-time jobs" and they do not cluster into easy majors, he said.

Linda Bensel-Meyers, a University of Denver professor who once alleged academic misconduct at the University of Tennessee, said soft majors and classes provide a grade cushion to maintain eligibility. But the greatest threats, she said, are grade changes and waiving of standard university policies, such as course prerequisites, to benefit athletes.

"It enables some athletes to appear to be enrolled in a college curriculum," Bensel-Meyers said. "In fact, they are merely being housed until their eligibility expires, often to graduate without an education."

Academic survival

Many athletes don't need a special path through college - they take challenging courses without the need for extra guidance. But at every school, pockets of athletes who struggle academically find ways to stay eligible.

Alabama cornerback Simeon Castille wishes he were still a communications major. He wants to become a broadcaster.

He's a general studies major in the College of Human Environmental Sciences now because "I screwed up, and this is getting me back on track to graduate."

Castille was academically ineligible for the Cotton Bowl last season. He became lazy, he said, and passed only three credits in the fall 2005 semester, leading to his ineligibility and a change in major.

General studies in HES is a popular place for key Alabama football players. It accounts for 40 percent of the majors for undergrad starters in 2006, as of Oct. 14, according to the team's media guide. :big: And they make us look like AU is for dummies.

General studies combines two or more existing majors from the College of Human Environmental Sciences: apparel and textiles, athletic training, consumer sciences, early childhood education, food and nutrition, health studies, human development and family studies, interior design, and restaurant and hospitality management. Get a degree in gym, or fast food, or how to do laundry and wear clothes.

"It's a safe home for athletes to be eligible for football and other sports, too," said Childress, the former Alabama defensive tackle who was a general studies major. "You really don't do too much work. You're basically taking notes in class."

Childress said he was made aware of HES general studies by advisers in the athletics department.

After going on academic probation when his grade-point average fell to 1.7, Childress said he used easy general studies courses and electives to increase his mark to the 2.5 the university said he needed to play.

Childress, an arena football player who is 15 credits shy of graduating, said he regrets treating academics so lightly and blames himself. He wishes he had told advisers he was interested in human resources instead of easily accepting classes that would keep him playing football.

"Nobody never challenged me. I wish somebody had. But . �. �. at that time, you're a grown man. It's on you."

'If it's meeting needs . . .'

Jon Dever, Alabama's assistant athletics director for student services, said he was not aware of a football class as described by Childress. Athletes, he said, are not steered or encouraged to take HES general studies.

HES Dean Milla Boschung said she was surprised to learn the number of football players in her college, but does not believe general studies has the perception of being a "jock major." Someone tell that to Mr. Huie.

"I just had no idea who is an athlete and who is not in our college," she said. "We just consider them our students. We think that's the right thing."

HES Associate Dean Olivia Kendrick said the number of general-studies majors has risen sharply among all students since a change in the major. "At one time it required that you take certain courses in each area, and that was really planned more for people who were teaching family and consumer sciences in high school (Home Ec) ," she said. "We made it more liberal so students could plan their own study."

Kendrick said the number of football players in general studies is not a concern.

"Well, good," she said when told the number. "If it's meeting the needs, that's great. We have good, professional programs. If I had the concern it was too easy, I'd do something about it."

Which major?

Alabama offensive lineman Antoine Caldwell said he chose general studies because he hasn't decided on a career and liked picking classes in finance, business and law. This semester, he has a financial planning class, a computer course, a health and fitness class, and he mentors kids. "You can take a lot of classes to kind of build your own degree, and I kind of always liked that."

Finding a major is not simple. For example, the College of Education requires at least a 2.75 grade-point average for admission, Dever said. The required GPA for HES is the same as for admission to the university.

At UAB, 61 percent of this season's starting football players, as of Oct. 14, major in history or communication studies, according to the team media guide. Six percent of UAB students major in those disciplines.

Mark Hickson, a communication studies professor at UAB, believes his department is popular because football players typically do not have good math skills. Students in communications and most social sciences, such as history, are required to take only one math course. The same is true of general studies at Alabama.

Additionally, Hickson said, these fields have professors who live in "a more ambiguous world. Thus, their students are less likely to have to answer specific factual questions."

UAB interim athletics director Richard Margison said the clustering of football players in particular majors reflects "athletes making their own choices, athletes talking to athletes. Nothing about that would alarm me."

Higher stakes

The NCAA has raised the bar - and the stakes - for athletes and athletics departments with requirements that don't affect other students. The new Academic Progress Rate assesses team penalties, such as lost scholarships, when an athlete becomes academically ineligible and leaves school. The NCAA also requires athletes to complete 40 percent of their degree work after their second year, 60 percent after the third and 80 percent after the fourth to remain eligible to play.

"Athletes are not representative of the general student body," complained Phil Hughes, who has directed student-athlete support programs at Michigan and Kansas State. "Our population is apples; their population is oranges."

Raising the bar for athletes will motivate them to find a way to reach higher, Hughes believes. That begs the question: How do they find a way? Are they shepherded through easy courses, cutting corners with the help of friendly faculty and administrators, or truly improving their academic skills?

"All of the above," Hughes said.

Two Auburn professors were forced to resign as department heads in August because they provided too many easy, directed-reading courses to athletes and non-athletes in sociology, criminology and adult education. Compared with the student body, a disproportionate number of athletes, including 18 football players from the undefeated 2004 team, took directed-reading courses in that department.

Auburn sociology Professor Jim Gundlach said his data showed that in one semester, 97.9 percent of athletes and non-athletes in classes taught by Thomas Petee received A's or B's.

Gundlach said records and his observations of Peetee lead him to believe that Peetee first expanded his directed-reading courses "for people he was acquainted with. I think he really enjoyed being in the company of the famous athletes."

Petee said in August he expanded outside-the-classroom, directed-reading courses for athletes and non-athletes because there weren't enough classroom faculty to accommodate increased enrollment in the department.

Virgil Starks, senior associate athletics director for student services, cited two reasons he is not concerned about the number of sociology and criminology majors on the football team, even though those departments were involved in the directed-readings case: Athletes still must take the core curriculum designed by the university, and athletes often must choose majors that will readily translate into jobs after college.

Lynn Lashbrook, who directed the University of Missouri's academic support services for athletes and has been a professor, said friendly faculty are simply products of improper checks and balances at universities. Auburn has since changed procedure for directed readings.

"But it's also OK to say in athletics, 'This really smells,'" Lashbrook said. "We don't do enough sniffing because we don't want to know."

'You study women'

At Alabama, some current football players say Introduction to Women's Studies is a popular elective used to boost grades.

Women's studies, which is a minor but not a major, produced 78.1 percent A's in entry-level courses from 2000 to 2002, the highest percentage in the College of Arts and Sciences, according to data from Alabama. The next highest was 51.4 percent for theater.

Freshman football player Javier Arenas, who wants to become a teacher and coach, said teammates encouraged him to take a women's studies class because it would boost his GPA before taking harder classes.

Arenas described women's studies this way: "It's what it sounds like. You study women. Me and another football player are the only two guys in there."

Dever, the assistant athletics director, said women's studies is popular among football players because it counts toward the 12 hours needed for humanities credit and is scheduled in the morning, so it doesn't conflict with football practice.

Rock climbing and paintball were part of the outdoor adventure class held on Saturdays at UAB. About 10 football players in danger of academic probation enrolled for the class, which was part of the ROTC program, in spring 2001, said Allan Branch, one of the players. The players intentionally scheduled it on Saturday, knowing they had games that day, never attended the course and received A's, he said.

"It was a joke of a class to begin with. It wasn't like the class was made for football players, but it kept us eligible," he said.

Lt. Pete Tofani, head of Military Sciences at UAB, said the course, which was discontinued before his arrival, was "a good course and a popular one" intended to draw students from other areas on campus. He said few athletes take Military Science courses.

Other students help

For former UAB basketball player DeWayne Brown, the best opportunity to cut corners came through students, not faculty. Brown's popularity led students in his classes to give him alerts on specific chapters to study for exams that were rescheduled for him. Brown said he never cheated.

"Could I have done stuff like that? Absolutely," Brown said. "Could a non-athlete have done that? Absolutely. Does the opportunity present itself to athletes more than non-athletes? Absolutely."

Former UAB offensive lineman Brad Spencer, whose last year was 2002, said he adopted the motto, "C's get degrees," because the time demands in football were so physically and mentally draining.

"That's why some of the smartest guys on our team would play dumb to get special help," said Spencer, adding he did not cheat. "They'd get their notes taken for them. They'd cheat openly in class and brag about it."

Coaches would stress class first, Spencer said, but he believed that was a programmed response. "Their job isn't to teach. Their job is to win football games. If they don't, they get fired. I'd do the same thing."

UAB head football coach Watson Brown said that depiction is "not even close. We're gonna try to win football games. But we're real hard here with classes. I'd put what we do against any staff in the country."

Some people believe that even if athletes receive degrees with ease, it's still a valuable accomplishment that poorer athletes might not have had without college sports. "Until basketball came along, I never really thought about college," said DeWayne Brown, the UAB basketball player, who did not graduate. "Now I have some education."

Marsh, the Alabama law professor, has watched universities "try to balance this act" of big-time athletics and academic integrity.

"Of course, I don't think most of the fans care - at least in certain parts of the week they don't. Saturday afternoon and night, they don't."

News staff writers Doug Segrest and Ray Melick contributed to this report.


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I have to admit, this kind of stuff annoys me, regardless of the school. Heck, I had a partial scholarship, but still worked at least 24 hours a week to pay expenses, sometimes full time. Somehow or another I made it through.

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Initially, I wanted to be a coach and took a lot of classes that were not much more than this football class. I had a lot of P.E. type courses and a ton of the athletes in those classes. Some of the classes, like track and soccer etc. were geared towards exactly what you would be doing as a high school coach or phys. ed. teacher. Honestly, that consisted of going to class and playing soccer, getting instruction on the fundamentals and how to teach those fundamentals and then writing up lesson plans on how you would teach it.

What else is there? These were crip courses and all you had to do was show up and participate and you could get about 30 hours of your degree out of the way and keep the grade point up. I had to take all the basic course like English, Math, History, Biology. Also had to take Physiology and Kinesiology among others. But overall, it was an easy path through college. Bottom line, those courses are real and whether you agree with them or not, they're very much a part of the cirriculum for certain majors. I know there are some grades given for making sure the automatic sprinkler system comes on, but for the most part, an athlete can find courses to pass that require little effort.

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It's done everywhere and let's keep it like that.

The day the SEC presidents line up behind Joe Paterno, Notre Dame, and the rest of the Big 10, is the day a transition of power will be to take shape.

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