Tuesday, April 06, 2010

On The Butler-Duke Final: Is Academic Excellence So Difficult To Combine With Athletics?

What the Los Angeles Times dubbed the final between "feel good Butler" and "real good" Duke turned out to be tighter than everyone thought, although I missed the game for an evening lecture at Zenith. When I am Director of the World, no lectures will be held on the evening of an important National Championship. Think about this when you are casting your vote.

But this brings me to a topic: the jaws that have dropped all over the country that two schools with a 90% team graduation rate made it through the bracket to the Big Game. Of course, Duke has been doing this for decades, but Butler was more of a shocker, since they operate as a good-sized liberal arts college (about 1,000 students more than Zenith) and have a basketball budget a tenth the size of Duke's (probably eight times the size of Zenith's, but now I'm guessing.) Of course, Butler draws on a local midwestern population where the public schools are good and childbirth is always a struggle because the little tykes come out with basketballs in their hands, but still. It was a big deal.

Add to this Cornell making the Sweet Sixteen, and there has been a general fluttering this year about the capacity of a few students to overcome their studying habits and press on to play championship basketball.

Of course, we already knew women could do this, right? But we take it for granted that most young men won't, and that tolerance for high levels of misbehavior and academic failure are part of the price a university must pay for athletic excellence (i.e., a team whose gear people will buy and that will bring home sumptuous television contracts that can be plowed back into more athletic facilities.)

Like so many things about university life, these tradeoffs are cynical and unnecessary: it is that old problem of assuming that things are as they seem. We talk about the "culture" of big time sports, as if we were anthropologists in The Land That Time Forgot, rather than looking at how we might change programs where the athletes are not doing college level work and are spending their spare time wreaking havoc on other students. Furthermore, if you look at schools that have a low graduation rate for their big budget teams, you often see overall low graduation rates, and students not able to get into the classes they need to attain the BA in four years. I remember a few years back when it was revealed that a Big Southern Football Power had a graduation rate of well under 10% for its national championship football team, but guess what? The university as a whole was under 40% for a BA in six years. And the team has not repeated its championship performance either, as its star players drifted off campus, mostly to the various forms of unemployment you are vulnerable to without an education or a pro contract. Hence, a few (not so very radical) thoughts for the NCAA about the relationship between athletics and education.

Athletic graduation rates are the canary in the coal mine. If a school does not value its student-athletes, and does not hold them to a high standard, that says something about how they value all their undergraduates. Are classes merely seen as a chore that students slog their way through on their way to the alumni association, or is there care taken to structure majors, provide the classes and advising students need, and support the development of academic skills? When athletes are caught in off the field criminal and social scandals, what does that say about the atmosphere that is more generally tolerated on campus by student organizations, Greeks, and the campus administration? Are adults even on campus after Thursday afternoon?

A baseline of academic discipline is a good indicator that athletes will be disciplined in their training habits as well. Learning to defer gratification, manage one's own time, set priorities and have healthy sleep, eating and sexual habits is part of what it means to be a grownup. It is these skills that get a young person through, either in the case of unbelievable celebrity (a scenario for a fraction of student athletes); ongoing pressure (a scenario for all college students including athletes); or a setback (an injury, illness, or surprising failure.) I asked my friend Tim, who went from my class at Oligarch University to the NFL, and was one of the most disciplined students I knew, what got him through a lab science major and varsity football. He smiled and said, "Well, when I had work I needed to do, I would just tell the coach I couldn't come to practice for a couple days." Because Tim was trusted by his coach to give 110% wherever he was, he managed his own life and he managed it well. What would college sports look like if everyone did this?

College coaches could keep their athletes in school by having an expectation that their athletes had taken high school seriously too. Each athlete should have a letter of recommendation from a teacher that speaks to this; on recruiting visits, a coach could take the time to talk to this teacher personally. Furthermore, students that were bounced around from high school to high school to get more starting time, either of their own volition or because of a parent's wishes, should be scrutinized more closely. These are the kids who, I would expect, could be guaranteed not to take school seriously because - why should they? It has never even been as important as their athletics, and they can't be expected to have developed that value system yet. Furthermore, why should they stay in college for any longer than it takes to get a contract or to get hurt? They never have gone to a school to be in school, so how would they even know what that means?

When college coaches, administrators, and alumni cheat and make excuses for themselves, athletes do too. And cheaters never prosper. Oh yeah, maybe for a season. But not for long. Building an athletic program, and building a college, is about the long term, not throwing the dice every year and praying it doesn't come up snake-eyes.

Intelligence, and being able to activate your intelligence in productive ways, matters, no matter what you are doing is a college skill. The notion of the "dumb jock" was invented by people who have never been successful athletes (or perhaps athletes at all.) It is true, the further you get away from money-making sports, the more intelligent people seem to be: crew, track, wrestling, squash, and many other sports that have modestly paid career dividends seem to be full of kids who go on to interesting non-athletic careers (or the very modestly paid coaching gigs their sport offers.) But one wonders whether the low academic expectations attached to the big money sports, not to mention coaches steering athletes away from challenging courses and majors, don't have more to do with the bad academic and career outcomes for these students than does lack of intelligence. Look at what these kids do on the field. A successful college linebacker not only has to memorize a vast strategic plan, he has to be a leader, be able to reorganize that plan on the spur of the moment, and process a tremendous amount of information in a matter of seconds depending on what is unfolding before him. That man may be many things, but he isn't dumb.

My advice to the NCAA is to refuse the notion that Duke and Butler have pulled off something exceptional, or that they are able to do it because they are private, not public colleges. To believe that is to undervalue what education -- and particularly public education -- ought to be; indeed, it refuses what it is, in many places. The truth is what they do can be achieved by everyone if the connection between athletics and education is a productive one that does not exploit the athletic labor of young people at the expense of teaching them.

And for my commenters who view these thoughts as simply naive? Show me the research demonstrating that athletic excellence is hindered by academic achievement, and I will post a picture of myself eating my UConn women's basketball hat.


Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

We are totally with you on the whole academic excellence CAN go hand in hand with athletic achievement thing, despite the fact that the team we supported in the non-ladies' tournament had -- ahem -- the lowest graduation rate of ANY in the 65-team field. (Ouch!) But, as for the wimmin's tournament, please, TR, say it ain't so! You're rooting for Geno over Tara? My typist is weeping softly into her cold coffee, banging her head against her laptop screen . . . . Ah, well, we know how these things go. Local loyalties can trump other kinds of allegiances, but the rule in Roxie's World all tournament has been ABCD: Anybody But Connecticut or Duke. Today we've shortened it to ABC, but the rule still holds. Game on!

Ellie said...

I loved seeing Cornell in the Sweet 16 and this "article" about it (nevermind that Ivy League schools don't actually have athletic scholarships): http://www.sportspickle.com/article:751/report-cornell-players-given-high-quality-education

Your loyal readers doubtless agree 100% with all you say in this post, but getting the remainder of the university-affiliated world (regents and trustees, legislators, alumni, administrators, even faculty) to see the light seems like a politically impossible task. I can't even get my colleagues to believe that our Big State U football team doesn't make a profit and actually costs the university money to maintain. The fantasy of the "self-supporting" athletic department is just too strong.

Meansomething said...

In high school, it's quite typical for student athletes to do better academically during their sport's season than in the off-season. Same goes for theatre people, Model UN, robotics team, you name it. When students are working hard toward a goal in one area, they often get better at organizing their time and benefit from the effects of everyone in the group doing the same. College sports ought, in theory, to benefit even more, because those teams practice and train together year-round. Parents whose kids aren't doing well academically often jump to the conclusion that they'd better pull the student from the team (more time to study), but I usually think that's more likely to make the student isolated and less productive. (An exception is when the student is overcommitted and something needs to go.)

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR I couldn't agree with you more on this -- I believe that Duke has the highest graduation rate for male athletes in the country. And don't forget the Duke Lacrosse team, which has won the ACC championship for the last three years in a row. Ah, the great gentlemen/scholar-athletes of Duke!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Without disagreeing with your overall point, the reason teams like Duke, Butler, and Cornell can be competitive is because over the last decade, the number of truly elite NBA-bound players on any single college team has plummeted as none of them play for more than a year.

Anonymous said...

TR said:
"The truth is what they do can be achieved by everyone if the connection between athletics and education is a productive one that does not exploit the athletic labor of young people at the expense of teaching them.

And for my commenters who view these thoughts as simply naive? Show me the research demonstrating that athletic excellence is hindered by academic achievement, and I will post a picture of myself eating my UConn women's basketball hat."

Don't you mean research demonstrating that academic achievement is hindered by athletic excellence in Div 1 high revenue sports?

What you're saying might be true for the tennis and judo teams, but it seems obvious that coaches in high revenue programs have incentives to succeed at the expense of their players. So the pressures on athletes to succeed athletically in Div 1 high revenue programs make it unlikely that they will succeed academically in a rigorous program. They're spending 40 hrs a week on athletics, have tutors doing who knows what, and are often admitted without being academically qualified,

Ellie, It's not just your football that loses money, almost all
Div 1 football teams lose money. Some of the ones that say they don't lose money just do accounting tricks with the budget.


Ellie said...

AYY, absolutely: only a handful of D1 football programs make real, as opposed to fake money generated by "creative" accounting. But since the NCAA won't release the names of those programs, it's nigh unto impossible to convince anybody on any campus with pretensions to "revenue-generating" athletics that theirs isn't one of them.

Chris said...

Proud Duke alum here. I'd slow down on the claims about academic excellence and Duke basketball players. I was in classes with some who didn't care at all; I was also in classes with some who cared a great deal but just weren't up to the level of work (clearly a failing of their high school education). There was no correlation between caring about education and how good a player was. There were star players who cared; there were star players who didn't.

BUT, where the standards do come in is the expectation that these players are expected to go to class without fail. I took about four or five classes in my time there with members of the men's basketball team in them and every day before class, there was a member of the coaching staff outside the door. His job was to make sure that they were in class. So from that point of view, there were expectations.

I agree with your point that academic excellence and athletic achievement go hand in hand but I think a more pertinent example of this isn't Duke or Butler but the sports at every university that aren't men's football and basketball. I know swimming best; those athletes are frequently exceptional students and it gets to precisely the issue you mention. Sports like swimming require incredible amounts of time and commitment (the sport is notorious for early morning practices) and this starts early: middle school and high school. To swim at the level required to swim in college requires exceptional time management and organization in high school, skills that carry over to college and to real life. I suspect other sports are the same. I certainly take your point about the expectations of women athletes but I think the men participating in these other sports exhibit these qualities and are held to these same standards.

(But I'm not sure I'm going to include Duke men's lacrosse in that category. That specific situation aside, they weren't exactly kept on a tight leash.)

MsMcD said...

As an ivy league student athlete myself (and a coach while in grad school at a public university) I wanted to reiterate that there are many excellent student athletes among the vast majority of sports. I've had several friends compete (and win) at the Olympic level while in college, then go on to grad school. I went to high school with a guy who went to the Olympics in wrestling and is now a math professor.

However, having competed at a high level does take a toll. I remember being exhausted for most of college. That much exercise actually does make you more stupid temporarily. Try running a marathon and then writing a paper (it just doesn't work well). I learned to be extremely organized (especially since I also ran part of the debating society, was in a sorority, and had a social life of a sorts). Sometimes my work suffered for it all. But I didn't regret it, because the athletics was another very important part of my education. I worked hard in the classes I cared about, and made sure that I did well enough in others. That was a choice. Every single one of our students makes the same choices. Although student athletes actually have an adult besides their parents making sure that they do well enough. Sports is time consuming, physically and mentally tiring- there's a reason that student athletes should be lauded.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Chris, according to the Raleigh News and Observer, Duke University recently put out the following statement about Mike Pressler, who was coach during the time that the team, according to you, wasn't kept on a tight leash:

"Coach Michael Pressler is an excellent coach. He did a great job building the Duke men's lacrosse program, while maintaining a 100 percent graduation rate in his 16 years."

I don't see how you could expect him to do much better than that, academics-wise!

Chris said...

JackDanielsBlack, I meant not kept on a tight leash in terms of behavior. I suspect we've got different opinions about what happened but I was sad that Pressler got caught in the fray. I had some very brief dealings with him and he always struck me as a good person.

Anonymous said...

I think that before anyone starts praising Duke too highly, it would be wise to read a blog entitled Durham in Wonderland

(According to the blog, Pressler was treated rather shabbily by Duke.)

Chris, it might not be a good idea to be too proud an alum of Duke. The basketball team seems to be a way of distracting from the more serious problems at Duke.

So here's a friendly suggestion:
The next time you get a phone call from Duke asking for a contribution, it might be interesting to ask whether you can find out how much they paid out in settlements to Pressler and to the lacrosse team, how the university financed the settlements, and what they're doing to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.


Tenured Radical said...

On the advice of my attorney, I am prohibited from commenting on the situation at Duke re. the people with balls and sticks. But I would also love it if we don't ride that old horse here at Tenured Radical anymore.

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, I can understand why you wouldn't want to "ride that old horse" anymore -- but as you historians are so fond of pointing out, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Just sayin...

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to pass this link along to Ellie and anyone else interested in college athletic finances. (At least I'll try to do it as a link. It's from the 12/11/09 USA Today, updated 4/2/10.) It has a breakdown of what the colleges spend:



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