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There was probably no single defining moment when it should have become obvious to the universities that their athletic departments were on the verge of academic bankruptcy. In The Sun Also Rises, Bill Gorton asks Mike Campbell how he went broke. "Gradually," Mike replies, "and then suddenly." That is how the colleges nearly lost their minds, and then their souls, over the past two decades—slowly, and then suddenly.
Certainly Dexter Manley's tearful testimony before Congress last year that he played football for Oklahoma State from 1977 to '80 despite being a functional illiterate forced a lot of schools to suddenly get religion. Some others may have seen the light upon learning that basketball player Kevin Ross sat in classes for four years at Creighton before leaving college in '82 to enroll at a Chicago elementary school because he, too, could not read. At Cal State-Los Angeles seven members of the basketball team took matters into their own hands when they filed suit against the university for alleged academic fraud. The school eventually paid the players $100,000 in damages and educational benefits and issued a public apology. "Reform is always stimulated by scandal," says political science professor Jack Citrin, who is the faculty representative to the athletic department at Berkeley. "You can only hold your nose for so long."
Athletic study centers and academic-services offices have blossomed on campuses like hothouse flowers, and the need for them is manifest. Consider this: Thirty of the 120 players invited to the 1990 Nike basketball camp for top high school players tested at a sixth-grade reading level, and six of those could read at no better than a third-grade level. University of Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum has recruited one of the most talented freshman classes in the nation, but three of the five players will be academically ineligible this season. "I think, frankly, it [the recruiting class] was embarrassing to the University of Louisville," says the school's president, Donald Swain, acidly.
However, that is what Swain gets for making his dean of admissions nothing more than a rubber stamp when it comes to admitting athletes. Swain and the presidents of numerous other universities allow their athletic departments—and, in many cases, individual coaches—to dictate which athletes are admitted. Given that system, it's small wonder that Louisville has a 10-member academic-support staff, plus 50 to 60 student tutors for its athletes. Cardinals football coach Howard Schnellenberger requires his team to put in so many hours practicing, lifting weights and watching film that the players have their own team motto: If you wanted to study, you should have gone to Harvard.
Louisville, though, is hardly the only offender. An NCAA study released in 1988 revealed that upperclassmen who play football or basketball spend an average of 30 hours per week practicing and playing their sports, but only 25 hours attending class and studying. But what seems to be changing, albeit slowly, is the opportunity athletes are being given to get an education. "The reality is, you've got them, now what are you going to do with them?" says Margaret Wellons, the coordinator of academic advisers at Cal. "Are you going to pass them along? Or are you going to enable them to succeed on their own?"
Major-college athletic powers all over the country are finally wrestling with that question rather than turning a deaf car. As a result, over the last several years universities throughout the nation have taken steps to provide better educational opportunities for athletes who might otherwise have simply gone through the motions academically until their eligibility expired. The most significant of those steps has been the widespread hiring of academic counselors, who in many instances are becoming as important in the lives of athletes as their coaches.
SI has chosen to take a look at the academic-support programs at two large state universities: Cal, an institution that is far more renowned for academic achievements than for athletic feats, and Auburn, where the reverse is true. Cal hasn't so much as won a conference title outright in football or basketball since 1960. Auburn, on the other hand, is a perennial national football power, has had two Heisman Trophy winners and currently has 27 of its former athletes playing in either the NFL or the NBA.
The Tigers, however, have paid a price for athletic success. Auburn graduated 54% of the students who enrolled there from 1980 through '83, but only 24% of its basketball players and 20% of its football players. By contrast, from 1981 through '84 Cal had an overall graduation rate of 65%, including 44% of its football players and 43% of its basketball players. "There's a great difference between our athletes and our regular students," says Patrick Waters, Auburn's director of academic services, which has five full-time counselors for athletes. "You throw kids with ACT [American College Test] scores of 17 or 18 in with kids who have scored 24 on the ACT—and remember that only half of those kids graduate—and you've got a very stressful situation. The athlete's chances of graduating in five years are practically nil."
Therefore, Cal is obviously doing a better job of educating athletes than Auburn, right? Not so fast. Alabama, where Auburn is located, ranks 48th nationally in per capita spending on public education. Hence it is reasonable to assume that the students who matriculate at Auburn are less prepared for the rigors of college than are their counterparts at Berkeley. "Most of our athletes start from a base that will prevent them from ever being intellectuals," says Waters.
Cal has also been more reluctant than Auburn to admit athletes who do not qualify under NCAA Bylaw 5-1-(j), known as Proposition 48. These athletes are not allowed to play or practice with their teams during their first year on campus. Cal has admitted only four nonqualifiers since the rule was instituted, in 1986; Auburn has taken 17. "I don't approach that first year as 'let's just get eligible,' " says Auburn academic adviser Lisa Knight. "If you use up their electives all at once, you're going to end up with nothing but super-demanding courses once they start playing."