I have spent all my adult life in academe, first as a student and then as a professor. During that time I have seen many variations in the role of intercollegiate athletics in the university, and I?ve developed sharply split opinions on the subject. On one hand, I despise the system, clinging as it does to the academic body like a parasite. On the other hand, I feel sympathy and admiration for most of the young athletes struggling to balance the task of getting an education with the need to devote most of their energies to the excessive demands of the gym and the field.
My earliest experiences with the intrusion of athletics into the class-room came while I was still a freshman at the University of Colorado. While I was in my English professor?s office one day, a colleague of hers came by for a chat. Their talk turned to the football coach?s efforts to court the favor of the teachers responsible for his gladiators by treating them to dinner and a solicitous discussion of the academic progress of the players. I vividly recall my professor saying, ?He can take me out to dinner if he wants, but if he thinks Ill pass his knuckleheads just because of that, he?d better think again.?
Later, as a graduate teaching fellow, a lecturer, and then an assistant professor of English, I had ample opportunity to observe a Division I university?s athletics program. I soon discovered that the prevailing stereo-types did not always apply. Athletes turned out to be as diverse as any other group of students in their habits, tastes, and abilities, and they showed a wide range of strategies for coping with the stress of their dual roles.
Some of them were poor students. An extreme example was the All- American football player (later a successful pro) who saw college only as a step to a six- figure contract and openly showed his disdain for the educational process. Others did such marginal work in my courses that I got the feeling they were daring me to give them Ds or Fs. One woman cross-country star, who almost never attended my composition class, used to push nearly illiterate essays under my office door at odd hours.
Yet many athletes were among the brightest students I had. Not so surprising, when you consider that, in addition to physical prowess, success in athletics requires intelligence, competitive drive, and dedication all qualities that can translate into success in the classroom as well as on the field. The trouble is that the grinding hours of practice and road trips rob student athletes of precious study time and deplete their reserves of mental and physical energy. A few top athletes have earned As; most are con-tent to settle for Bs or Cs, even if they are capable of better.
The athletes? educational experience can?t help being marred by their numerous absences and divided loyalties. In this respect, they are little different from the students who attempt to go to college while caring for a family or working long hours at an outside job. The athletes, however, get extra help in juggling their responsibilities. Although I have never been bribed or threatened and have never received a dinner invitation from a coach, I am expected to provide extra time and consideration for athletes, far beyond what I give other students.
Take the midterm grade reports, for example. At my university, the athletic department?s academic counselor sends progress questionnaires to every teacher of varsity athletes. While the procedure shows admirable concern for the academic performance of athletes, it also amounts to preferential treatment. It requires teachers to take time from other teaching duties to fill out and return the forms for the athletes. (No other students get such progress reports.) If I were a cynic it would occur to me that the athletic department might actually be more concerned with athletes? eligibility than with their academic work.
Special attendance policies for athletes are another example of preferential treatment. Athletes miss a lot of classes. In fact, I think the road trip is one of the main reasons that athletes receive a deficient education. You simply can?t learn as much away from the classroom and the library as on the campus. Nevertheless, professors continue to provide make- up tests, alternative assignments, and special tutoring sessions to accommodate athletes. Any other student