COLLEGE ATHLETICS I
Last month the Associated Press quoted Dr. Gerald Gurney, Iowa State's athletic department academic counselor, as saying that 95% of the school's athletes read at less than the 10th-grade level and that 10% of them were "functionally illiterate." After the story broke, Gurney protested—and the AP duly noted in a correction—that he was talking not about all Iowa State athletes but about 28 football and basketball players in a single, and unspecified, freshman class. To be sure, the statistics for this group weren't pretty: 26 of the 28 read at the 10th-grade level or below and three of them read at less than the fourth-grade level, which some educators use as the cutoff for illiteracy. But even those figures, by themselves, obscured Gurney's point in bringing them up: to emphasize that Iowa State has a strong remedial program for helping academically subpar athletes.
As it happens, the situation at Iowa State provides a useful case study of the academic realities of big-time college athletics. As Gurney claims, the Cyclones' remedial program is exemplary. The help offered to Cyclone athletes involves more than 100 tutors, nightly study tables and remedial reading classes. "We make a commitment to the athlete," says Gurney. "Some of them are so close that with just a little help they can advance themselves—if we just give them the key to the lock."
Some of the results of this program are striking. Upon arrival in Ames, Alan Hood, now a sophmore and the second-string quarterback on the football team, tested at a. sixth-grade reading level, and his grade-point average his first semester was 0.74, or roughly a D-minus. "I thought it was over for me," he recalls. But thanks to the tutorial program and his own efforts and intelligence, Hood now reads at better than the 11th-grade level and has a 2.97 GPA, a shade less than a B average, in industrial education.
As gratifying as such successes are, however, it can be argued that after recruiting academically disadvantaged athletes and loading them down with the time-consuming demands of college football or basketball, giving remedial help is the very least a school can do. It's also fair to ask why so many academically deficient athletes find their way to Ames in the first place. Although Gurney and other Iowa State officials insist that the school's admission standards are the same for athletes as for non-athletes, such assertions are belied by the testimony of Associate Professor of English Dale Ross, who administers a writing test to most Iowa State freshmen. In any given year some 100, or about 1.5%, of the school's 6,500 freshmen are athletes. By contrast, it's Ross's "ball park guess" that of the 25 freshmen who typically might be considered to be "functional illiterates," as many as 10, or 40%, are athletes. The fact that incoming athletes are so much more likely to have literacy problems suggests that different admission standards are applied to them.
None of this would be quite so troublesome if more of these ill-prepared Cyclone athletes routinely showed the sort of academic improvement that Hood has. By way of suggesting that such improvement is commonplace, Iowa State officials maintain that the graduation rate among football players within six years of matriculation runs at 60% or more. But senior Linebacker Mark Carlson, who was a strong student from the moment he stepped on campus—he has a 3.22 average in chemical engineering and made the 1982 Academic All-America team—says he believes there have been a number of players on the team who still couldn't read when they were upper-classmen. According to Carlson, one way such athletes can stay eligible and, in some cases, perhaps even graduate, is by partaking of overly generous helpings from Iowa State's smorgasbord of snap courses, such as Geology 100 ("Rocks for Jocks"), Modern Dance I or Modern Dance II. "What do they do?" Carlson asks of the last two courses. "What the hell do you think they do? They dance. And I've seen it, too—375-pound linemen dancing."
Iowa State is to be commended for trying, through its remedial program, to make the best of the sorry situation that college sports has become. But it must be said that Iowa State also contributes to that situation by admitting at least some students less on their academic promise than on' their ability to catch passes or shoot jump shots, by encumbering them with sports-related commitments that, by Gurney's own admission, amount to "full-time positions" and by then hiding them in a host of soft courses. To say that other schools are guilty of the same thing is a sad commentary on them, not a favorable one on Iowa State.
COLLEGE ATHLETICS II
Another byproduct of the pressures of college sports is the practice of "running off," by which coaches strip athletes of scholarships to make room for better players. Usually a coach who wants to run off an athlete will claim that the player has a bad attitude, or he'll make the young man's life so miserable that he'll quit the team. But Dave Gunther, basketball coach at the University of North Dakota, at least deserves credit for honesty. After 13 straight winning seasons, the Sioux fell to a 12-16 record in 1982-83, and Gunther responded by taking away the athletic scholarship of one of the players he holds responsible for the poor showing and reducing the scholarships of four others. Gunther doesn't pretend that any of the five had academic or attitude shortcomings. They had their scholarships eliminated or cut simply because they hadn't played well.
In other respects, Gunther's action conformed to the usual running-off pattern. First, he had several good recruits waiting in the wings for the scholarship money he was freeing up. Also, his action was perfectly permissible under NCAA rules, which specify, contrary to popular understanding, that athletic scholarships be awarded one year at a time. "What I did isn't an unusual thing," Gunther said. "Most scholarships are yearly things. If players don't live up to expectations, their grants can be reduced."