December 31st, 2008
02:00 PM ET

The college football "spread"

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Dave Schechter
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.

USA Today and the Indianapolis Star also recently have published reports on how athletes are admitted to college and the types of courses many enroll in.

“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.

Filed under: David Schechter • Education • Football
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    I went to the University of Tennessee where football was a very big deal but academics was also – we had Rhodes scholars, Fullbright scholars, Pulitzer Prize winners, astronauts, and more – and most years a pretty good football team. I felt like it was pretty well balanced there; I got a great education, worked with really great professors and researchers, and also got to work out at the Oak Ridge National Lab that UT runs now. So as to the question – I think you can do both but that academics should always be the priority; if it is and you have a great program then you'll get good football players.

    December 31, 2008 at 7:41 pm |
  2. earle,florida

    Cynic: person who sees all action as selfishly motivated; and now that we've got that out in the open; college, and universities are learning institutions period! The only selfish motivators are the Regents incapsulated by greed! Sports never figured into education,and never will,it belongs on the sidelines. It's learning how to lose/ making-mistakes that creates character/adversity for the trials of life that will eventually befall all graduates,...putting things in perspective seems to be a difficult task for today's society?

    December 31, 2008 at 5:32 pm |
  3. Tammy, Berwick. LA

    Having taught student athletes at the college and secondary level I can say they are hard working, they understand discipline, and they don't get that magical free ride cynics believe they do. They aren't just going to class. They go to study hall and tutoring if needed. They work out. They have practice. During their season they may be gone more than home (especially in sports like baseball, softball, and basketball). Yet, they can hold their grades up higher than some students who simply go to class and then play on their computers or hang out in the union the rest of the day. I am also the proud older cousin of a student athlete who has worked so hard to achieve his goals as a baseball player. That young man defies the cynics who probably haven't broken a sweat since high school gym class.

    December 31, 2008 at 9:57 am |