CNN Senior National Editor
What’s the spread on the big game?
At this writing the University of Florida is a three point favorite to beat Oklahoma University for the mythical championship of college football.
But let’s consider another spread. This one has the Gators at minus-346 and the Sooners at minus-238.
What’s this all about? We’ll get to that in a moment, but first a digression.
Years ago, a half dozen or so sports fans who work at CNN had a heated discussion over lunch regarding college sports.
What is the purpose of a university, a cynic asked, to educate or to put a top 10 football team on the field?
Listen, that football team provides publicity for the school and brings in money that supports other, “lesser” sports, one stalwart replied.
And state schools should take a chance that, once in school, that athlete will develop academically, echoed a voice in support.
Yes, but is it right to admit an athlete with lesser credentials than the rest of the student body, the cynic asked, and what do you say if a more academically qualified student doesn’t get in while a less qualified athlete is admitted?
The cynic – who graduated from one of those small private schools, the kind that offer no athletic scholarships and where the athletes attend the same classes as everyone else – recalled that debate after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution committed an act of public service journalism.
“Football and men’s basketball players on the nation’s big-time college teams averaged hundreds of points lower on their SATs than their classmates, and some of the gaps are so large they call into question the lengths to which schools will go to win,” Mike Knobler wrote in Sunday’s edition.
If you pay your state taxes, then some of that money goes to support your state universities. That qualifies you as a consumer with an interest in how those universities operate.
In its report, the Journal-Constitution utilized data submitted by universities over a period of years, from the late 1990s to 2006, to the governing body of collegiate sports, the National College Athletic Association.
Back to that spread.
As it happens, of the more than 50 public universities surveyed, the greatest disparity between the SAT scores on incoming football players and the student body, a difference of 346 points, was at the University of Florida, while Oklahoma University had a gap of 238 points.
For all of the schools surveyed, football players were an average 220 points below the student body in general and basketball players only seven points better.
“Nationwide, coaches who would never offer a scholarship to a player who was 6 inches shorter or half a second slower than other prospects routinely recruit players whose standardized test scores suggest they’re at a competitive disadvantage in the classroom,” Knobler wrote.
“If you’re going to mount a competitive program in Division I-A, and our institution is committed to do that, some flexibility in admissions of athletes is going to take place,” Tom Lifka, chairman of the committee that handles athlete admissions at the University of California at Los Angeles, told the Journal-Constitution. “Every institution I know in the country operates in the same way. It may or may not be a good thing, but that’s the way it is.”
“The problem is there’s a huge world of Mickey Mouse courses and special curriculums that athletes are steered into,” said Murray Sperber, a visiting professor in the University of California’s graduate school of education and the author of four books about college athletics and college life. “The problem is there are many athletes graduating from schools who are semiliterate.”
Georgia Tech basketball coach Paul Hewitt told his local newspaper that athletes should be compared with students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. By that measurement, athletic programs fare better; black athletes graduating at higher rates than black students as whole. “To insinuate that athletics has caused this problem of poor graduation rates [among black students] is wrong,” Hewitt told the Journal-Constitution.
Now, before anyone suggests that the cynic is casting aspersions on the academic potential of all big-time college athletes, that’s not the case. To start, standardized tests such as the SAT are only one tool in projecting how a high school student will fare in college. Second, many athletes in major college programs make the grade and graduate with their student peers; those in the “lesser” sports often closer to being at par with the student body. And some big-time athletes distinguish themselves, such as the Florida State University football player recently named a Rhodes Scholar.
“I met very, very few certifiably dumb jocks,” Sperber told the Journal-Constitution. When their careers ended, some were among his best students. “The discipline they had learned in sports they finally could apply full time,” he said.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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