A Stones Throw 3-13-14

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Fifty years ago I was playing basketball for Iowa State University.

I can say this with pride and honesty – albeit with a slight twitch in my eye.

At the time, the Iowa State varsity basketball team (freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity team) had a roster of 14 players.

I was ranked number 15.

I guess they were still waiting for number 14 to show up.

Whatever, I did manage to get into a couple of games after the game had been decided – thus, I can honestly say I played basketball for Iowa State.

The reason I bring this up is that I have been reading articles that show how much big time college athletics have gotten out of hand. Perhaps the most telling is the report that the University of North Carolina has provided its “special talent” – make that predominantly football and basketball – athletes with over 200 lecture courses that met less than once during the semester.

That is right – over 200 lecture classes that never met.

One of the more popular courses was a lecture class on Swahili history. I know I haven’t done a good job of staying current with all of the interests of our younger generation – but Swahili history?

Mary Willingham, former UNC athletic counselor and tutor, provided the answer in an interview that was reported in a recent Bloomberg Business Week magazine. Ms. Willingham claims that Swahili history is included in the list of lecture classes that never meet. In fact, in order to complete the class, a student need only submit a 20 page paper at the end of the semester.

And, if a paper is submitted, it always receives an A or a B.

I say given since Willingham expressed concern whether the papers were even read.

When the “gifts of grades” (my words) at UNC were first reported, the information was treated like a sudden awakening to the academic abuse that is a result of the need to put the best team possible on the field or court.

It should not have surprised anyone.

In 2011, Stanford, a university noted for its strong academic requirements, was forced to discontinue classes that were “easy and/or convenient” for athletes.

In 2009, Florida State University academic advisors admitted to taking tests and writing papers for football and basketball players.

In 2008, Memphis was forced to forfeit games for accepting invalid SAT scores. The NCAA determined Memphis knew the scores were invalid – but the player involved was too important to worry about a little thing like invalid scores.

Bloomberg Business Week reported that in 2008: “The Ann Arbor News reported that from 2004 to 2007, 251 athletes took independent study classes with the same professor and received suspiciously high grades.”

And the list goes on.

Auburn University, Florida, Fresno State, Georgia, Minnesota, Tennessee, and the University of Southern California, and many more, have all been sanctioned by the NCAA for providing inflated grades or tests and papers written by academic advisors and/or tutors.

Perhaps college athletics have gotten too big. Perhaps we should go back to the college athletics of 50 years ago.

Perhaps not!

When I was a senior in high school, the college athletic scandal of the day was the discovery that gambler Jack Molinas had successfully recruited several basketball players in an effort to “fix” college games. As the investigation progressed, several big name college basketball players either admitted involvement in “shaving points,” or were implicated in the game fixing.

As a high school senior, I was recruited by several Division One colleges. One of those colleges had the player who had reported the point shaving and game fixing to his athletic director. This report played a major role in bringing Jack Molinas and his scheme down. And, as a result, several high profile players were banned from playing college basketball.

Knowing this, I looked forward to my visit. I had heard a story claiming a University of Iowa basketball player had simply written his name and “basketball” on the top of his test paper. He received an “A” on the paper. (I had a friend who was in the same class with him.)

I was valedictorian of my class so I didn’t want to go to a school known to coddle its athletes. I wanted to be a student-athlete not an athlete-student. With this in mind, I looked forward to the visit to a school that had demonstrated its honesty and credibility.

But then, reality set in.

The school that boasted about helping to stop the worst gambling scandal in college sports history also told me if I would accept a scholarship to play basketball for them they could guarantee me a “B” average.

So much for honesty and credibility.

Since I wanted to play basketball at a school where my grade point would be recognized as being legitimate, I chose Iowa State University.

And – I can assure everyone that my degree and grade point are both legitimate and well earned.

However, while Iowa State was not known to “coddle” athletes, I soon discovered that there was a list of “jock” professors and a list of “non-jock” professors. The “jock” professors were known to work with athletes and around their practice and travel schedules. To my knowledge, athletes had to do the required work – but I can’t guarantee it.

Meanwhile, the “non-jock” professors were known to be anti-athlete and would have requirements that were difficult, if not impossible, to meet while also being committed to practice and travel. I was also told that these professors had the reputation of giving lower grades to athletes.

I would say that either the giving of low grades simply because a student is an athlete was not true – or, on the other hand, maybe those professors didn’t consider me an athlete – that is what number 15 out of 14 gets you.

At the same time, I had a friend who was ranked as the number one singles tennis player in the Big Eight conference take a chemistry class from one of the “non-jock” professors. On the Saturday Takanori was scheduled to play in the finals of the Big Eight tennis tournament he also had a final lab test scheduled. His professor refused to reschedule the lab test.

It was either play tennis and fail the course or pass the course and forfeit the tennis championship.

I mention this only in defense of having the “jock” and “non-jock” list.

Still, I can’t deny that Iowa State athletes were able to find professors and classes that assured eligibility. After all, the 1960’s were a time when some college teams were accepting elite players who had only achieved a “certificate of attendance” in high school. No diploma – just a “certificate of attendance.”

In other words, while I think it is important that the academic scandals of today are reported, and hopefully eliminated, these practices are not new – and they are not exclusive to North Carolina or any of the other schools mentioned above.

It is also important to note that these academic scandals do not involve all athletes. In fact, they involve a very small minority of college athletes. There are more Andrew Lucks (Architectural Design degree with a 3.48 grade point) than there are those who depend on someone else to do their work.

Let’s face it, academic scandals existed fifty years ago – they exist now – they will exist tomorrow.

And, I doubt that very many people will consider the academic side of college basketball when they fill out their “March Madness” brackets for the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament.

Perhaps they should – but they won’t.

- Mike Cooney