Skip to main content
Original Issue



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.


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."

Gunther makes running off sound like the firing of an incompetent employee. Trouble is, the "employee" in this case doesn't have workmen's compensation, can't form a union and doesn't have the right to bargain for a higher salary or better working conditions. He can't even readily seek employment elsewhere; under NCAA rules, incredibly enough, even players who are run off must sit out a year if they transfer to another school. And the justification that scholarships are of one-year duration doesn't tell the whole story. In offering athletic scholarships, coaches almost always paint four-year pictures of what a recruit can expect; seldom do they hint at the possibility of a scholarship being reduced or withdrawn for poor play.

In trying to defend this one-sided situation in which the athlete has all obligations but no rights, Steve Morgan, the NCAA's director of legislative services, says that running off is subject to "a real-world check," in that the practice can hurt a coach's reputation in recruiting other players. But this check didn't help the five North Dakota players, who will have to either transfer—and lose a year of basketball eligibility—or come up with some other means of financing their education at North Dakota. And, oh yes, although he also had a part—in fact, by any conventional measure of judging a college team, the major part—in last season's disappointing showing, Gunther hasn't offered to take a cut in pay.


Now that we've discussed college athletes 1) who can't read and 2) who get run off by their coaches, we move on to the subject of Kevin Ross, who was still virtually unable to read or write after playing center and forward for Creighton's basketball team for four years and who claims that in his senior year he had to resist the efforts of Coach Willis Reed, who was disappointed in his play, to hound him into quitting the team.

Belatedly accepting its responsibility for Ross's academic failings, Creighton in effect extended his scholarship for a fifth year by paying his tuition at West-side Prep in Chicago, an innovative private school with a reputation for helping youngsters overcome educational deficiencies. After he enrolled at Westside last September, photos of the 6'9", 23-year-old Ross in a classroom with seventh-graders attracted national attention, as did the news that he'd tested at the second-grade level in reading.

The Ross story now has an almost happy ending. On May 25 Ross will graduate from Westside Prep, and he'll take with him academic skills he failed to acquire either in high school in Kansas City, Kans., where he received a diploma, or at Creighton, where he loaded up on such courses as Theory of Track and Field, Squad Participation (basketball), Introductory Ceramics, Photography and First Aid. A recent test revealed Ross's reading skills now to be at the national average for high school seniors, and he says proudly, "I know about Plato's Republic now. I didn't know who Plato was when I came here."

Ross's dramatic academic improvement at Westside demonstrates, as does the progress of some of the athletes in Iowa State's remedial program, that colleges could do a far better job of providing a real education to the disadvantaged athletes they lure onto their campuses. It also underscores the need to modify the NCAA's recently enacted Proposal 48, which starting in 1986 will make minimum scores on standardized tests a condition of academic eligibility. Such mini-mums would throw the baby out with the bath water, barring eligibility—and probably as a practical matter, the awarding of athletic scholarships—to many academically deficient students who need only the proper opportunity and appropriate catch-up help to succeed in the classroom.

Instead of Proposal 48, the NCAA should adopt and enforce proposals that will require its member schools to educate those athletes they now only exploit. Then we wouldn't have to qualify occasions such as Ross's graduation as being "almost" happy. Ross says he's considering returning to college to pursue a degree in earnest—he's thinking about the University of Illinois-Chicago or Roosevelt University—and he pronounces himself pleased with his academic turnaround, saying, "Creighton labeled me 'rejected,' and I turned it over, and I put 'accepted.' " But he also says, "This is no time for me to celebrate because I know there are a lot of people out there like I was." Ross will have an opportunity to expand on this theme on graduation day at Westside Prep. He's scheduled to give the commencement address.

Owing to the inability of the two bickering leagues to work out a scheduling conflict, the San Diego Sockers may have to start their NASL outdoor season even before finishing their current championship series against the Baltimore Blast in the Major Indoor Soccer League. Having already once delayed their NASL opener, the Sockers, whose indoor roster includes most of the same players who are expected to be on the San Diego outdoor squad, now are scheduled to debut against Team America on May 21. As for the MISL finals, the fourth game, if necessary, of the best-of-five series is set for May 19 and the fifth for May 23. And so, it could come to pass that a team may actually start a new season while its last one is still in progress. Because of the lengthening of pro sports schedules, it has, until now, only seemed as though that had been happening.

Fordham University Baseball Coach Paul Blair started the following lineup the other day for a game against Long Island University: Vinny Ferraro, SS; Tony Russo, 2B; Billy Santo, 3B; Ed Napolitano, 1B; Mike Stefano, LF; John Blanco, CF; John Macaluso, C; Darryl Porfilio, RF; Joe Vanchiro, DH; and Tony LoBello, P. Is it a mere coincidence that the coach who filled out the lineup card for that game—which the Rams won, 7-6—used to play for the O's?


There was less than meets the eye in Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay's intemperate remarks last week about John Elway, who, you'll recall, was selected by the Colts as the top overall pick in the NFL draft and, after intimating he'd never play for Baltimore, was traded by Irsay to the Denver Broncos. At a press conference to announce the signing of Northwestern Tackle Chris Hinton, whom Baltimore acquired in the Elway deal, Irsay predicted that Elway would "never be any good" in the NFL and said that when the Broncos and Colts meet, "We're going to get Elway." As for who the "we" might be, Irsay said that the Colts had "also signed up a couple of boys this week who are looking for Elway."

The reaction to Irsay's comments was swift. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle reprimanded him for the threat against Elway, and Irsay issued an apology of sorts, saying that he hadn't intended to imply that his players would try to harm Elway. He merely meant, he said, that they'd "go after him, just like any other quarterback."

We don't know what Irsay was trying to imply, but we're convinced that he was in a pretty confused state of mind at the press conference. After saying that the Colts had signed two boys who were going to "get" Elway, he told the Chicago Tribune's Don Pierson that Baltimore had already signed nine draftees. In fact, the only new player the Colts had under contract at that point was Hinton, an offensive player who wouldn't be on the field at the same time as Elway. Unless the Colts hurry up and sign some of their draft selections, the woefully out-of-touch Irsay may have to try to get Elway all by himself. And that's something he has already proved he couldn't do.

On the occasion of his recent induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., University of Alabama Coach Don Gambril recounted how he'd been a member of the U.S. Olympic coaching staff in 1968, '72, '76 and '80 but had never been the head man. In 1984 Gambril will at last be the head Olympic coach, despite having undergone major heart surgery last January. Concluded a now recovered Gambril: "While I was on the operating table, I learned that there was no escaping a five-way bypass."



•Ken Singleton, Oriole outfielder, after visiting President Reagan to help kick off National Amateur Baseball Month: "I was glad to go because I'd never been to the White House, and I don't expect that I'll become President."

•Edward Bennett Williams, Orioles owner, on speculation that Bowie Kuhn's help in negotiating baseball's new $1 billion network TV contract might save Kuhn's job as commissioner: "It's safe to assume that a billion dollars buys a lot of goodwill."

•Derek Harper, junior guard on the Illinois basketball team, describing Coach Lou Henson's reaction to Harper's decision to make himself available for this year's NBA draft: "He didn't jump up and down and say, 'I'm glad you're leaving, Derek.' "

•Mickey Rivers, Ranger outfielder, before a game in Milwaukee played in windy, 48° weather: "It's so cold out there, I saw a dog chasing a cat and they were both walking."