Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Writing is on the Wall

The rash of phony transcripts and academic cheating spells out the fact that athletics are now an abomination to the ideals of higher education. Victims: the student-athletes. Culprits: the system and those who run it

This is the spoor of an educational system gone mad: Nov. 15, 1979: Eight Arizona State football players were declared ineligible because they received credit for an extension course, Remediation of Reading, Mathematics and Language for the Exceptional Child, taught during the summer of 1979 in Gardena, Calif. under the auspices of Rocky Mountain College of Billings, Mont. The players neither attended any classes in the course nor completed any of the work required. Arizona State forfeited the five victories in which the eight had participated and Athletic Director Dr. Fred Miller was subsequently fired.

Nov. 19: The NCAA informed San Jose State that a Spartan football player, senior Guard Steve Hart, might be academically ineligible. San Jose investigated the allegation and found that Hart had, indeed, claimed credit falsely for two courses in the Rocky Mountain program. San Jose, the PCAA co-champion, forfeited two victories, a tie and the conference title.

Nov. 30: New Mexico Basketball Coach Norm Ellenberger and Assistant Coach Manny Goldstein were suspended after an Albuquerque Police Department wiretap revealed that,with Ellenberger's consent, Goldstein had arranged for Guard Craig Gilbert, a junior-college transfer, to receive phony credits through Oxnard (Calif.)College. A federal grand jury subsequently indicted Ellenberger on multiple counts of fraud relating to the alleged doctoring of academic transcripts.

Dec. 4:Twenty-eight athletes at the University of Southern California, including 19 players on USC's Rose Bowl-bound football team, were found to be enrolled in—but not attending—Speech Communications 380, a course supposedly open only to members of the debating team. The speech instructor resigned; the athletic department's academic coordinator was suspended; and the athletes were given a five-day "crash course." After the university reviewed the work done in the crash course, 26 of the athletes were ordered to take a second makeup,"because," said USC President John R. Hubbard, "of irregularities discovered in the conduct of the first makeup." Among the irregularities was the submission by some student-athletes of work that was not their own.

Dec. 6: Five New Mexico basketball players were declared ineligible for having received three hours of credit for an extension course—Current Problems and Principles of Coaching Athletics, administered by Ottawa (Kans.) University and taught during the summer of 79 in Sepulveda, Calif.—which they never attended. A sixth player, who claimed to have actually taken the course, was suspended.

Dec. 22:Immediately before the University of Utah basketball team's 71-69 upset of national champion-to-be Louisville, Coach Jerry Pimm was informed by Dr. R. J.Snow, the school's vice-president, that the Utes' star forward, Danny Vranes,had received credit for the Ottawa University extension course in Sepulveda.Despite Vranes' assertion that he had been given permission to take the course by correspondence and to not attend any classes, Utah ruled Vranes ineligible.

Dec. 24: Oregon State University announced that football player Leroy Edwards, who had taken the Ottawa extension course but never claimed credit for it, was still found to be ineligible because he had failed in a summer course in general biology at Central Florida Community College in Ocala. Oregon State had one win to forfeit.

Jan. 17, 1980:California State Polytechnic at Pomona announced that it had volunteered to forfeit all three of its football victories and offered to do the same with its 16 dual-meet cross-country wins after two athletes—runner Mark Turner and Defensive Back Henry Wilson—admitted to having received credit for classes they never attended in the Rocky Mountain College extension course. Further investigation revealed that Reserve Center Kenneth Barrance, a Cal Poly basketball player, was also academically ineligible. He, too, had never attended the Rocky Mountain course for which he had been registered. Cal Poly thus forfeited eight basketball victories as well.

Jan. 23: Dr.Arthur G. Hansen, president of Purdue, announced that the university had suspended Defensive Back David Anthony Hill because records submitted to Purdue before Hill transferred there from Pasadena City College gave him credit for courses that he acknowledged he had never attended, namely, the Rocky Mountain course and others offered by Pacific Christian Junior College in Fullerton,Calif.

Feb. 14:University of Oregon President William B. Boyd announced that seven Oregon student-athletes were known to have received credit for courses for which they did no work. Four football players had received unearned credit for the Ottawa University extension course, two swimmers had received unearned credit from Pacific Christian College and Derrick Dale, a former linebacker, had earned instant eligibility in the early fall of 1978 by "taking," as independent study, a jogging course at nearby Lane Community College. Dale was credited for running he had already done in football practice. Boyd fined the head football coach, four of his assistants and the swimming coach more than $9,000 for their involvement in the scheme.

Feb. 16: The Los Angeles Times reported that several former athletes at UCLA had been credited with attending a course at Los Angeles Valley College that they hadn't actually attended.

March 10: The L.A.Times reported that USC's Billy Mullins, the NCAA 400-meter champion in 1978,had been accepted as a transfer student at Southern Cal in the spring of 1978 largely on the basis of a transcript that included 28 credits he purportedly had received in the fall of 1977 from four different community colleges located in the Los Angeles area—Pasadena, Los Angeles, West Los Angeles and Rio Hondo.According to the Times, Mullins' schedule would have required that he be at Rio Hondo at 8 a.m. for Economics 1A, 20 miles away at Pasadena at 9 a.m. for Chemistry 22, and back at Rio Hondo at 10 a.m. for Literature 1B.

April 30: The University of Southern California announced that it had uncovered in the records of a former student, a member of the track team, 10 units transferred from California Lutheran College in 1978 that appeared to be fraudulent. The discovery was made in the course of a check, ordered by the Pac-10, of all transfer credits received from 19 institutions listed by the conference as"suspect." USC has also been unable to verify credits received by the same student from Compton College.

Appalling as the public record is, the current state of the so-called student-athlete becomes nothing short of unconscionable when academe's heavily fortified wall of"privacy" is breached. Here, for example, is signed, written testimony given to NCAA investigators by athletes enrolled in institutions of higher learning: "I think he [a coach] did visied me a school one.... Since I have been at [the school], Coach [name deleted] have not give me any money, period.But he have lend me five to tin dollars but I have paid it back to." And,"Coach [name deleted] give me a 5 or 6 dr. to do my cloth is with but other than that he have not give me any money."

For as long as intercollegiate sports have been taken seriously in the U.S., the image of the"dumb jock" has endured. In caricature, he is not an altogether unappealing figure: the fullback whose neck is a size larger than the best grade he has ever received in math class; the kid with a rampant pituitary gland who calmly dribbles behind his back but breaks into a cold sweat at the prospect of diagramming a simple sentence. This was always an exaggerated image, one that was more playfully than seriously advanced.

No more.

The "dumb jock" has now come into full flower in the American educational system. He is fast becoming a national catastrophe. He is already a national disgrace.About the only good thing one can say about him is that his blossoming has inadvertently exposed the larger failures of the educational process.

What happened? Why is it different after all these years?

It is different because the educational system itself is in chaos, its spirit preoccupied, its standards blunted to a point where almost anything that passes for curricula is permissible. High schools—many of them—do not educate; they graduate. Junior colleges—many of them—have such meager academic requirements that they are fertile ground for any angling coach who feels the need to do some academic cheating to keep his players eligible. The sins of the high schools and J.C.sare visited on the major colleges, where the buck stops.

It is different because declining enrollments and inflating costs have made the possibility that the bucks will stop a real one on some campuses. Thus, schools become susceptible to the rationale that a little athletic malfeasance is okay in the cause of academic survival. They have seen that the excesses of a few coaches,a few administrators and a few boosters at other schools have yielded success—in direct terms by selling seats and generating revenues through TV exposure, in indirect terms by making those schools more visible to potential students.

It is different because academic standards have been eroded to the point where more undereducated student-athletes than ever are getting into college today. Not just underprivileged young men who need a chance, but unqualified young men who have no chance, not in the classroom. Through their playing days at college they are kept "eligible" via an eventless and immaterial habitation of the classroom. They wind up down the road with neither of the things they need most: 1) an education and 2) a degree. The venerable institutions of higher learning may not be squeamish about keeping such student-athletes eligible, but they draw the line at giving sheepskins to young men who have spent most of their time sweating over a pigskin.

It is different because the administrators and academicians who have traditionally tried to keep "big sport" in its place have created the ultimate irony: as the architects of all this chaos, they have subverted their own system. Caught up in money-madness, they have made a legion of scavengers of their coaches—coaches desperate to win, desperate to get and keep in school those players who can help them win, and thus keep business booming. The failures of administrators are as joined to the sins of coaches as a man's leg is to his hip.

It is different because under the guise of affirmative action and other civil rights programs,athletic administrations have made athletes more exploitable than ever. With all too few exceptions, "eligibility majors" pass through the process doomed to failure and a future of disillusionment.

It is different because in the last 20 years colleges have allowed their "money"sports—football and basketball—to become farm systems for the professional leagues, and in so doing have permitted their athletes to embrace a terrible myth: that attending college with the sole aim of making the pros is compatible with the academic environment, even at the expense of scholarship.Scholastically handicapped players are thus invited into college to pursue an impossible dream: to become one of the small number of college players (less than 2%) who make it in the NFL and NBA.

It is different, finally, because the coaches themselves—traditionally the heavies in this long-running melodrama—see the problems better than anyone else. They are at once culprits and victims, and many of them have had enough of being both."Our administrators tend not to deal with the problem at all, but to gloss it over with a lot of fancy dialogue," says Bill Walsh, who spent seven years in the college ranks—two of them as head football coach at Stanford—and is now coaching the San Francisco 49ers. "If you enroll a kid who has no chance to cut it academically, you're guilty of manipulating that kid. If you protect him from an education instead of educating him, you're guilty again."

"I see transcripts [of high school athletes] you wouldn't believe," says Notre Dame Football Coach Dan Devine. "Some of them are tragic."

Some of them you shouldn't believe, even when they look good, says Louisiana State University Basketball Coach Dale Brown. "Colleges will inherit a student from a high school with a 3.0 average who, in fact, is reading at a sixth-grade level,"he says.

Transcript falsification is an extreme but all too common manifestation of the failures of the educational system and of the educators themselves—which is why administrators (to use Walsh's words) "tend not to deal with the problem." Historically the NCAA would far rather catch a coach or player with his hand in the till than reveal soiled academic skirts. In a 150-page report for the American Council on Education written in 1974, George H.Hanford, the current head of the College Board, called for an investigation of all intercollegiate sport, charging that athletics had "drifted from the mainstream of American education" and "were making athletes willing victims of today's highly structured industrial complex." Instead of"building character," big-time college sports were actually destroying it through "exposure to the unethical and immoral practices in which the athletic establishment indulges." Hanford found that the well-being of the athletes "came second" to the need for fiscal solvency.

University comptrollers, if not those people cheering in the stands, understand what athletic cost efficiency means. An NCAA Division I football team is permitted to have 95 players on scholarship at any time. Say a tuition scholarship is worth $4,000, that means the football team has cost a school $380,000—plus the salaries of a head coach and 10 assistants—before the first pair of sweat socks is handed out. What fans do understand is that they don't have to spend Saturday afternoons watching ol' State lose, no matter what the school's team has cost. And they don't. Which means that if a university is going to get even financially, not to mention tap in on the huge profits earned by the most successful football schools, those 95 scholarships had better go to athletes who can deliver: fill those stands, get the team nationally ranked and on TV—and let's not hear about a star running back losing his eligibility because he cannot conjugate the verb "to run."

Hanford and A.C.E.did not get the funding requested for their investigation. Dr. Harry Marmion,director of the Commission on Collegiate Athletics for A.C.E. and a former coach and college president, found this sad but not surprising. "The whole fabric of U.S. athletics has been distorted," he said.

The problem, says Dr. Ewald B. Nyquist, a vice-president of Pace University and former commissioner of education for the State of New York, is moral: "not educational, not economic or fiscal, not social—but moral. And what is morally wrong can never be educationally right."

To find the origin of this particular sin, you have to go back to before college, says LSU's Brown, "back to lazy parents who never encourage their children to read, to awful high school instruction and to high school principals whose main aim is to keep students going from one step to another to make way for the next batch."

Flaws in elementary and secondary education (over—crowding, underfinancing, classrooms in turmoil, etc.) are well documented. What is new is that the situation is steadily worsening. As the economy falters, public services are curtailed, and education is often the first and hardest hit by the cutbacks. More than 40% of the initial $6.8 billion reduction in public spending brought about by Proposition 13 in California came from education budgets.

When a high school transcript makes better fiction than The Grapes of Wrath, it is a good bet that the school has compensated for the miserable job it has done by "helping the kid out." College recruiters complain of an all-too-familiar pattern.The requirement for a football or basketball scholarship at many Division I institutions is a C average through high school. A school finds out a college coach is interested in one of its boys. The boy reads at the fifth-grade level.The boy suddenly becomes an A student. The NCAA has a case on file of a New York athlete who showed colleges three different transcripts—three different sets of grades. But such examples no longer need be cited to prove that a problem exists. After the academic scandals that have made headlines with regularity over the last six months only the terminally naive can deny the existence of a deliberate, pervasive warping of the system. And the seemingly mandatory cop-out of coaches and administrators when caught—that "this is an isolated instance"—doesn't wash any longer.

Occasionally a coach will stop singing the fraternity song and level with the world. One is Pepper Rodgers: "If I were coaching at a school where you could give a guy five hours of correspondence courses during the summer to keep him eligible,hell, yes, I'd give 'em to him. So would every other football coach, to my knowledge. Why? Because that would be the rule at that school, and the alumni are going to fire me and my wife and my kids and my assistant coaches and their families if a 6'2", 220-pound halfback who can run the 40 in 4.5 isn't eligible and we don't win football games." (Rodgers was fired by Georgia Tech last December.)

And a former football coach in Utah, who begs anonymity, says, "I'd love to have players who're great athletes and great students. But it boils down to this: a coach can't always get kids that qualify as both. So I adopted this formula: sprinkle in as many brilliant students as possible who can play a respectable brand of football. Then go out and find the guys who don't give a damn about academics but want to make football their meat. Let the geniuses play a little bit. Let the All-America dummies play a lot. Then every time a genius does something brilliant on the field, play it up four times as much as what the dummy did.The college world and professors eat that sort of thing right up."

But for the most part there is collective silence and the academic pantomime goes on, played out by a cast of coaches, faculty members, parents and community leaders. Reginald Brown, the principal of Chicago Vocational High School, calls it "a status thing." The cast members almost invariably justify their duplicity by asking, "How can you deprive a kid of a college education?" But is it education? And are not every student's academic accomplishments diminished by the hypocrisy, curriculum juggling and outright cheating?

"It's prevalent and it's accepted...[but] it's a cancer," says Brown. "If you let a kid pass when he doesn't deserve to and the other students and staff members know it, it breaks down all the respect and discipline at the school.It erodes the whole network of education."

Chaos can have gentle beginnings. Bill Walsh sees the educational plight of today's athlete as an evolutionary process that ends in dehumanization. It begins with concern and caring. "It starts from the day a Little League coach takes a youngster under his wing and tells the boy he can be a great baseball player," says Walsh. " 'But to do it,' he tells the boy, 'you've got to forgo all the other sports—no tennis, no swimming. Never mind the piano, practice your baseball!' The Little League coach cares. He enjoys his work and, naturally,he'd like to develop a baseball player.

"The boy enrolls in high school, and the coach there sees his potential. He wants the youngster to have the 'opportunity to excel.' Whether the coach realizes it or not, he starts directing the boy's life—telling him what classes to take,giving him a course of study that doesn't challenge him in the classroom or develop the disciplines of the mind that will best serve him in society.

"The parents fall into the trap. They're happy their son is being 'taken care of.' If he is really exceptional in athletics, the townspeople get involved, from the mayor on down. They treat him specially, to the point where he doesn't have a real perspective on life. 'Things' are done for him. No one wants to spoil his chances to make it big.

"The college recruiter visits. He tells the parents that he will 'take care' of their boy,make sure this or that doesn't happen, that he'll have the best of this and that. Still the young man hasn't had to deal with the day-to-day frustrations other youngsters face. He's quite willing to accept this attention—his name in the paper, a suit of clothes, being steered away from classes he 'won't need.'After all, he's going to be a pro.

"The boy goes through his college career 'protected.' Special dormitories, special food,carefully chosen courses. He lives with youngsters of the same interests. There are no distractions, no problems, no frustrations. We coaches feel we have to try harder and harder, because that's what our competition does, and so we do more and more to segregate the athlete. And he goes willingly.

"We do everything but educate him. We're afraid he'll fail, so we look for ways of making it easier instead of ways to educate him. Soon his entire outlook is distorted.

"It can be devastating."

Thus, the devastation begins long before the student-athlete reaches for the top rung of the educational ladder, and there's little the colleges can do about the failure below. Whether or not a high school diploma is much more than a certificate of attendance is outside the NCAA's jurisdiction so long as the student's record is dutifully recorded on the proper transcript form.Universities know that often the secondary schools are writing fiction—about non-athletes as well as athletes. SAT scores for all high schoolers, which the schools can't tamper with, have fallen at a rate of 2½ points a year over the last decade, indicating that incoming freshmen are more poorly prepared than they used to be. Many colleges have had to set up massive and expensive remedial reading and mathematics programs for first-year students. Ohio State found that more than half its freshman class in 1978 needed remedial math and a fourth needed remedial English.

A unique comparative study was recently completed by Dr. Alvin C. Eurich, currently the president of the Academy for Educational Development. In 1928 he administered a reading examination for 1,313 freshmen at the University of Minnesota and 4,191 high school seniors in the state. In 1978 he gave the same test to a similarly diverse group of 865 freshmen at Minnesota, and the scores were significantly poorer across the board. The freshmen of '78 even tested at a lower reading level than the high school seniors of '28. And it wasn't just that a larger slice of the population (45.5%) goes to college now than did in 1928 (12%),resulting in a lower average score. In the top 1%, the very best of '78 tested at a significantly lower level than the very best of a half century ago.

From the moment the student-athlete sets foot on campus, the name of the game is "majoring in eligibility," and it is a vulgar, callous, shameful, cynical—and perfectly legal—exploitation of the system by and for the American college athlete. The formal term for it is "normal progress toward a degree."But the NCAA's definition of "progress" won't be found in any dictionary; for one thing, "progress" in the student-athlete lexicon can mean no progress at all.

Here is how Bernard Madison of Chicago was making "progress" toward a degree at Montana State University:

Madison is 20 years old. At Hirsch High School on the South Side of Chicago, he grew to be 6'5" tall and a better-than-average basketball player. Maybe not a pro prospect, but good enough to make first team of the All-City squad in 1978. He graduated with a 2.7 grade-point average, which put him in a good position to make basketball pay for his higher education.

Chick Sherrer,president of Athletes For Better Education, wrote the following evaluation of Madison's academic prospects in a profile book that AFBE sends out annually to college recruiters: "Bernard [is qualified], but his program of studies over the last two high school years has not been the most solid college preparatory. This is his second year in the AFBE program and we have been impressed consistently with his uprightness, courtesy and classroom cooperation. He may never set the academic world on fire, but his lamp of learning will burn with a steady, carefully-tended light."

These are the courses Montana State arranged for Madison to take to keep his lamp burning through the first half of his first basketball season—Basketball Fundamentals and Techniques, Basketball Philosophy, Physical Conditioning, Wrestling Theory,General Biology (health) and Safety With Hand Power Tools. Madison earned a B average.

After the semester was up, Madison called Sherrer, almost in tears. He said he realized he wasn't going to make a million dollars playing for the Celtics, but at this rate he wouldn't even be able to get a decent job after his"education." He said he had arranged to switch some classes for the next semester, working into his schedule some English, some math, some general economics. But by this time, Madison says, Montana State had "destroyed my motivation." He stayed on through most of the second semester, withdrawing just before finals. He has since enrolled at Chicago State University, where he is taking the courses necessary for him to begin his sophomore year there next autumn as a history major.

University of Cincinnati President Henry R. Winkler was equally unhappy upon discovering what "normal progress" can mean. When he addressed his school's faculty senate about an NCAA probe of recruiting violations that had led to sanctions against Cincinnati, he said he had decided to go beyond the NCAA's investigation to see what kind of academic performance was passing for"progress" by athletes in his school.

Among his findings was the case of a basketball player, a member of the Bearcats' 1,000-point club, who had spent four years at Cincinnati and had accumulated approximately 50 credits, barely 25% of the number that is required for graduation.

Winkler was stunned. "When I looked through [the] transcript, I realized there was noway in which anyone could argue that this person was making reasonable progress toward a degree—even an Associate of Arts, which is a two-year degree. He had played four years of basketball."

Winkler also said, "I think I need to assure the faculty that I am a believer in intercollegiate athletics. I also will be damned if I am going to be president of a university in which substantial corruption in athletics is the rule."

Winkler then told his faculty that "slovenliness and the lack of concern on the part of administrators and athletic personnel" was over. Cincinnati, he said, would no longer allow "a mockery of the educational system."

One other fact bothered Winkler. He said he thought the two-year probation imposed by the NCAA for the recruiting violations was "appropriate," but "nowhere in that report did the NCAA show any interest whatsoever in the question of the academic performance of athletes. In effect, they were saying, 'We don't give a damn whether your people are academically eligible, whether they go to school or not.' That may be a harsh reading, but it is the only conclusion I can draw from the evidence I have before me."

Welcome to"normal progress," Mr. President.

Well then, what is "normal progress toward a degree"? Basically it is a mishmash the NCAA—meaning the member schools, not the paid staff in Shawnee Mission, Kans.—has concocted. The membership resists hard-and-fast "normal progress" rules. Led by the Ivy League, it wants autonomy in scholastic matters and the right of "like institutions with like needs" to handle academic requirements as they see fit. The NCAA requires only that an athlete be "in good academic standing as determined by the faculty" of his school, that he be "enrolled in at least a minimum full-time program of studies" and that he maintain "satisfactory progress toward a baccalaureate or equivalent degree as determined by...that institution."

The NCAA's minimum standard is that a student-athlete must be registered in at least 12 hours of course work per semester or quarter, but in practice the demands vary from conference to conference and school to school. Most of the major conferences require 24 semester hours passed per year; the Big Ten requires more; the Ivy League doesn't spell it out. There is no central monitoring of progress, no clear-cut guideline on curricula.

The Big Ten, Big Eight and Mid-America conferences have a minimum grade-point-average requirement; the Southern, Southeastern, Southwest and Pac-10 do not. Even within conferences there is confusion. At Georgia, for example, the grade-point-average requirement rises according to hours attempted—which,thereby, penalizes an athlete who chooses to take a heavy academic load—so an athlete could be eligible by NCAA and SEC standards and not by Georgia's. Even then, says Registrar Bruce Shutt, an athlete could remain eligible by moving from major to major, "as long as the dean okays it."

There is also the matter of curriculum, and how to get through by feeding on such soufflès as Family Financial Planning and Household Equipment (actually offered by many schools) while avoiding courses that are required for a major—and, hence, a degree. By dancing (literally, in some instances) through a hodgepodge of introductory-level "life-science," "appreciation" and, a student-athlete can build up credits while making no progress toward getting a diploma or an education.

"Every institution has ways to keep an athlete eligible," says a veteran Big Ten coach. "You know it, I know it, everybody knows it—but that doesn't mean he'll graduate." He describes an example in which a freshman is signed up"for five hours of football, five hours of basketball, five hours of golf,five hours of tennis, five hours of volleyball, five hours of swimming and five hours of track.