The illusion of the noble student-athlete has been blown apart over the last year, with courts ruling that playing college football really is a job, to conference commissioners decrying the state of the academic achievement among big time athletes, and more. Recently, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly fired another salvo, where he admitted that yes, even at an academically demanding institution like Notre Dame, virtually all of his football players are at-risk academically. Here's the quote:
"I think we recognized that all of my football players are at-risk — all of them — really. Honestly, I don't know that any of our players would get into the school by themselves right now with the academic standards the way they are. Maybe one or two of our players that are on scholarship.
"So making sure that with the rigors that we put them in — playing on the road, playing night games, getting home at 4 o'clock in the morning, all of the demands that we place on them relative to the academics and going into an incredibly competitive academic classroom every day — we recognize this is a different group.
"And we have to provide all the resources necessary for them to succeed and don't force them into finding shortcuts.
"I think we've clearly identified that we need to do better, and we're not afraid to look at any shortcomings that we do have and fix them, and provide the resources necessary for our guys. Our university has looked at that, and we're prepared to make sure that happens for our guys."
This is a surprisingly frank admission, and one that may come as a shock to some Notre Dame fans, even though it had been reported that Notre Dame was taking kids who wouldn't have gotten into the school otherwise years ago. It's also the truth almost everywhere, including Ohio State, and it isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Coming from a Big Ten fan, that might sound like heresy. After all, bragging about a superior commitment to academics over the "lawless" SEC is a much a part of the midwestern college football fan identity as wearing jerseys to games and pontificating about the importance of the punt. But many Big Ten programs, including Ohio State, have historically admitted football and basketball players who wouldn't have gotten into the school otherwise.
CNN obtained data back in 2009 that shows that multiple Ohio State football players were not reading at a high school level. Data from other schools with high academic achievement, like UCLA, Wisconsin and Georgia, also showed multiple athletes scoring well below benchmarks that would be needed for regular admission. Given that the average ACT score for a freshman at Ohio State is now nearly a 29, it shouldn't be a shock that many athletes would struggle to gain admission without their sport.
But that's potentially true for anybody who has an elite talent to bring to a university. If a world-class violin player wanted to join Ohio State's orchestra, but was horrendous at math, it would be wise for the school to find a way to make room for that person. We make adjustments based on demographics, finances and where students went to school, and undoubtedly many potential football players come from high school and environments that would give their applications special considerations had they applied without the benefit of football.
In a perfect world, the structure of big time college athletics, combined with the support systems from the athletic department and university, can give the opportunity to quickly catch up and earn a degree from a competitive institution to somebody who wouldn't otherwise have it. Notre Dame, Ohio State, or other large institutions are not suffering from an actual lack of classroom space or desks, after all. The admission of a linebacker with a 19 on his ACT almost certainly does not literally take a spot away from say, a student with a 28 on his. In the abstract, a program of special admits can be a win-win for everybody involved, and coaches should sell it as such.
Of course, the devil is in the details, and those details are sometimes ugly. Kelly himself admits here that Notre Dame's support system could be better, (especially after two high profile academic scandals involving football players), and simply shuttling students through fake courses helps nobody.
We've written before about coaches and programs that discourage academic enrichment, and that the NCAA is more concerned with the appearance of educating than actually educating anybody. Ohio State has at least made an emphasis on more holistic education with Real Life Wednesdays, but they are by no means perfect.
The news that yes, many college football players don't meet the same academic benchmarks as regular students, shouldn't be met with pearl clutching or outrage. Rather, it should be a reminder to drive the discussion into reforms that can help those students progress academically, even while playing sports. That may mean restrictions on late TV times, or finding ways to limit travel,or pushing for schools to place more academic benchmarks in coaching contracts. It could mean lots of other things.
It's time to tear down the facade that we all root for teams of warrior poets on the weekends. The truth can be equally uplifting as the rumor, if everybody shares a commitment to making it that way.