Our latest thing/apology cycle comes courtesy of the president, who told a large faculty meeting that he didn't really get it when it came to sports.
"We admit students who aren’t as qualified, and it’s probably the kids that we admit that can’t honestly, even with lots of help, do the amount of work and the quality of work it takes to make progression from year to year,” he said. “These past two years have gotten better, but before that, the graduation rates were terrible, with football somewhere in the 50s and 60s when our total six-year rate at the University is somewhere near 90 percent, so that’s a challenge.”
Schlissel said an individual’s academic deficiencies are often overlooked to fill competitive rosters.
And that's fine. It's fine that he said it, fine that people reacted to it, and fine that the next day the university issued the lawyered-up CYA statements that large organizations always do when someone does something remotely controversial.
The main disconnect here is the opposite of the "muggles" thing. Muggles supposes that student-athletes are a breed apart when I guarantee 99% of them would self-destruct in EECS 100, let alone that f-ing networks class. That's fine. Guys like that one hockey player in my EECS 380 are true marvels. That kind of dude is not nor should be required for universities to feel good about their big ol' sports programs.
Sports are a valid pursuit for someone in college. They are hard as hell.
College sport is a weird enterprise where people are admitted to a University because they have a particular skill, are expected to hone that skill upwards of 40 hours a week, and also get a meaningful degree in something totally unrelated. I do not think I would have done well at football practice after yet another f-ing night spent trying to convince the automated grader that I had in fact replicated TCP/IP precisely.
We have a model for this: music. Applicants to Michigan's School of Music have to submit a headshot, a resume, a "repertoire list", and submit to an audition. Also this:
Pre-screening recordings, portfolio, video interview, studio teacher preference, and/or writing samples required by your Department
SAT scores are not really that important. Music gets lumped in as an acceptable academic pursuit; sports do not. Music people get to go music and then get a liberal arts degree around it; sports for credit is ludicrous.
Why? Tradition and momentum. Sports started out as an extracurricular thing and the history of the NCAA has been a futile attempt to keep it from moving to its rightful place. I mean, scholarships used to be controversial.
The unfortunate thing is that football's towering media profile blots out the various other extracurricular-type activities that fulfill the same purpose. Poke a newspaper sports section in this country and you will find Daily grads crawling all over its staff. When I was in school some friends and I started the Every Three Weekly, and contemporary alums from that include this guy who writes movies and this lady who writes for Modern Family. They did not get their jobs by having a shiny GPA.
There are a number of professions out there in which chops are everything. These often follow models that boil down to "show me." Football is one of these things, along with any creative pursuit you care to name. A degree in it is a valid idea, and erases a bunch of the supposed hypocrisy that comes along with the model. You know, the stuff that causes some yob at the WSJ to lead off with this:
Who believes in the myth of big-time college sports anymore? The polite fantasy of the student-athlete playing gratefully for pride and tuition has been stripped away by an overwhelming financial reality that became too big and rich to ignore. The hypocrisies can be seen from outer space, and public opinion—not to mention the courts—are catching up.
The force of my eye-rolling threatens to detach my optic nerves. Over the past few years I have met many former players, and they are universally impressive. From Vincent Smith to Marlin Jackson to Brandon Williams to Todd Howard, all of these guys got out of the University of Michigan what they put into it: a ton. I bet some of them didn't pay too much attention to their grades because that is a reasonable thing to do when you are doing something as demanding as football. People do not have infinite reserves of energy, and their grades won't matter—even if they end up in something else. For history majors, GPA is a demonstration of effort. For athletes, that's assumed.
Universities would be better off saying "yes, this is weird but it is valid" instead of clutching their pearls. Michigan needs to take kids and prepare them for existence outside the university; in my experience they are terrific at this.
Let them graduate in their field, with a liberal arts distribution attached. Test them when they arrive and when they leave to make sure you're doing a good job of educating them. I'd much rather be affiliated with a university that takes kids with some academic questions and turns them into the guys I've met than one that snootily says "not you" because of things outside that kid's control.