Uproar in the triangle: Football and academics

29 Jul

In my neck of the woods the talk today is all about the firing of coach Butch Davis after a year of allegations, innuendo and investigations.

The questions that are being asked by virtually everyone are : What did he know about the academic cheating?;What else, if anything did he know? ; and Why was he fired at this particular point, one week before practice begins??

One of the root issues to this debate that is being ignored or subsumed by other issues is the academic preparation of athletes, particularly black athletes for a selective university like UNC. I have asked the question before of a lot of people and never gotten an answer. “What is taken into account about the academic preparation of the black male student before he is admitted to a selective university and thrown to the faculty wolves ( I used to be faculty so please no outrage), so to speak so he can play football, basketball, track, etc?”

Academic levels are viewed for some bizarre reason as totally separate from each other. Elementary  teachers typically have very little contact with middle school teachers, middle school teachers have very little contact with high school teachers and college professors have virtually no contact with high school teachers–although some school of education faculty might and others do episodically.

So, the child who appears as a freshman in college( I refuse to use the euphemistic “first-years”, I was a freshman in college in 1966 and until they change the terms “sophomore, junior and senior” I refuse to abandon freshman), is presumed to have, like Topsy, just growed!

His or her academic preparedness, from courses taken to the curriculum available to him or her is not taken under advisement in any significant, cogent way that I can determine. Do colleges and universities have remedial programs? Oh yes they do, many, many of them. But, a bad k-12 experience, however you choose to define it, will not be fixed by any remedial program of a semester or two. All professional educators know there are certain thresholds that are much more easily crossed at certain ages. I taught French to junior high and high schoolers, but on the occasion I had a chance to work with elementary students I found they had a better ear, picked up the words easier and became fluent much quicker. They were in a language learning period of their lives, had not developed static practices with words.

Sometimes in education the ship sails at a certain time. If  the student is not on board he or she may never be able to catch up with the cruise. If they are going to catch up it takes personal motivation and skilled tutoring.

If, however the child left behind ( apologies to W) can run a 4.4. forty or has a 32 inch vertical leap he may be deemed early in his career, say about 12 or so, to be better served to develop his athletic ability rather than his academic ability. Of course, the two should not be mutually exclusive. My oldest son was both a gifted athlete and an honors student, but , and this is a big but, he was not large enough for Division I athletics. He did play Division III football, but that is a different creature all together.

In some ways you cannot blame the coaches, teachers, counselors and parents who look at a gifted athlete, particularly a gifted black male athlete—one of the societal roles we have comfort with black males holding, and encourage him to dedicate his time, effort and objectives on being excellent on the court or field.

Professional athletes are superstars and highly paid. Professors rarely make it to the seven figure range unless they are scientists skilled in obtaining mega grants, and that is not a role most of our society sees black men in, either actually or conceptually.

So, we begin to worship these young men at about age 12. We begin to encourage them and enable them to concentrate more on athletics than academics. We smooth their paths, we cut them breaks, we link their self-worth to the athletic field/court. We encourage them to take easy courses in high school. None of that AP stuff for you my lad, you need to practice not be stuck doing homework or visiting the library! And then we drop them in a competitive university that wants a winning team and we are shocked when they cannot write a paper that will get them a passing grade in a class taught by a professor who probably did take AP courses in high school and only engaged in athletics on Friday night when he or she attended the games.

The academic dishonesty mess that so many colleges are currently dealing with has its roots in the abysmal state of black k-12 education. It is no surprise that all of the young men targeted as having had papers or other academic assignments done for them are black. You can look at this one of two ways. Either white boys are smarter than black boys or they are the recipients of better advice, more academic expectations and better educational opportunities than the black boys.

As long as so many in America are sure that it is the former and not the latter these kinds of scandals will continue to erupt, and continue to be the news of the day and all black athletes may be tarnished with the same brush.

So, if any athletic directors, coaches, chancellors, presidents and provosts are reading this here it is in spades:

1) If the universities continue to distance themselves from k-12 education and refuse to help improve education particularly for males, and especially for black males, you cannot fix 13 years of bad education with any college remedial or tutoring program known to man or woman.  You may be able to get them to the level where they pass, but you will not get them to the level where they become academically adept. If the point of going to college is first to get educated then playing a sport when you are already behind academically is a recipe for disaster.

2) Athletes need to be connected to the academics at their institution in more relevant ways. In order to do this mentoring and relationships with professors need to be fostered. Because it would be nice if some of the people were of color who were mentoring the athletes you may have to depend on administrators and alumni given the dismal number of black, American Indian and Latino professors on college campuses.

3) Ethics are not taught by instructing or enabling or helping people cut corners to “get by.” Eventually it will catch up with you and then you are in a world of hurt. If the people responsible for the care and feeding of the athlete are not ethical that is game, set and match.

4) Quit running the athletic programs as if the only benefit the black athlete can get from a college going experience is to hope to excel in athletics. Just because we do not have a representative number of black academics does not mean we could not have, it is not their brains that are inadequate it is their opportunities and the expectations for them that are lacking. . And guess what, some of them could probably even play football and still excel academically, it can happen if you believe it.

Finally, you cannot wish for something or try to do something. You have to do it. Wishing for an academically sound and athletically skilled program will not make it so. Take the words of the sage Yoda to heart, “There is no try, only do or not do.”

You owe the young men whose parents trust you with them to do.

1 Comment

Posted by on July 29, 2011 in Uncategorized


One response to “Uproar in the triangle: Football and academics

  1. Mary Beth King

    August 4, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Well said, Miss Cookie!


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