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When Leroy Holt enrolled at Southern Cal in the fall of 1985, it didn't take long to determine that he would need more coaching in the classroom than on the football field. According to the results of the battery of diagnostic examinations that all USC freshman athletes have to take, Holt had severe reading deficiencies. He would be a major test for the university's academic support system. Tutoring, though, didn't seem to help Holt. His difficulties lay elsewhere.
His eyes, he says, tired quickly when he read, and he would fall asleep with his books in his hands. "I got a lot of negative comments from my tutors," he says. "They would tell me I fit the stereotype of athletes as dumb jocks, that I wasn't trying hard enough and applying myself. Maybe they were trying to motivate me, but all it did was make it harder for me to feel like I could do it."
Holt's tutors had been assigned by Student Athlete Academic Services (SAAS), a USC program that tries to help athletes adjust to college-level work. His progress in class was monitored—Holt's professors submitted midterm evaluations of his work to the program—and he was given individual tutoring. Still, Holt struggled. By the end of the first semester of his sophomore year—his third at USC because he spent a year as a redshirt—he had worked his way up to second-string fullback but was on academic probation.
The athletic department wanted to see him continue to play football. So Holt enrolled at Santa Monica College to earn enough units during the spring and summer to maintain his USC eligibility. He returned to USC for his junior season and started at fullback. But again Holt was not successful in the classroom—though he continued to receive tutoring—and he returned to Santa Monica for the spring semester. In other words, for two years Holt was a USC student only during football season.
Toward the end of his junior year, he finally got the help he needed. At the suggestion of assistant athletic director Marvin Cobb, he went to an eye doctor who discovered that Holt's problem was his vision, not his mind or his motivation. "The way it was explained to me," says Holt, "my left eye would read the beginning of one line, shut down, and my right eye would start reading the end of a different line. It had nothing to do with my intelligence."
He received vision therapy and his grades began to improve, but it was too late for Holt to get back on track toward the degree in history he wanted to earn. When his five years of athletic eligibility ended after the 1989 season, he was 15 units short of graduating. He's now in the Miami Dolphins' training camp, trying to make the team after spending last season on injured reserve as a rookie. He plans to get his degree under USC's Degree Achievement Program, which pays for a semester of tuition and fees for athletes who return to the campus in hopes of graduating.
Holt's experience is typical of many black athletes who have come to USC poorly prepared for the academic demands of college. The school has a special admissions program, now called the University Access Program, for students who don't meet Southern Cat's usual academic requirements. In 1987, 17 freshman football players, including nine blacks, entered USC under the special admissions program. According to a memo obtained by SI, the reading levels of the 17 football players "are many times no better than sixth grade. Math skills are comparable." A report from the USC President's Athletic Advisory Board said that in 1988 125 students were admitted under the special admissions program: 50 were athletes; 20 were black athletes. All but one of the black athletes were football or basketball players, and most were considered high academic risks.
Several current and former Trojan athletes, as well as some university administrators, say USC fails these black athletes in perhaps the worst way that a university can fail a student—by not providing the academic support necessary for them to succeed in college. USC is hardly alone in this regard. "I suspect we're typical of [colleges] around the United States," says Margaret Gatz, the faculty athletic representative at USC. "Faculty reps talk to one another. I'm matched any time I tell a story."
An NCAA study of 3,288 athletes at 85 Division I schools who entered as freshmen in 1984 and '85 revealed that 52.3% of white athletes graduated within five years, but only 26.6% of black athletes finished in that time. In football and men's basketball, the graduation rates were 54.9% for white players, 25.0% for black players. A 1988-89 study of athletes at 42 universities, commissioned by the NCAA Presidents Commission and conducted by the American Institutes for Research, indicated that athletes in general and black athletes in particular felt isolated both socially and academically from the rest of the student body.
"The exploitation of black athletes by colleges and universities in this country has been going on for a long time, even at a school with the history and reputation of USC," says Cobb. "USC, like many schools, is a virtual black-athlete factory running on quarter speed. They go out and sell those kids on the Trojan family, that a USC degree will mean the world. Yet they don't have the proper resources to make it an even chance for the kids they recruit."