Watching the NCAA basketball deal has reminded me of what disturbs me about college athletic programs. It's that most of these people should not be allowed to say they are in college, let alone that they are college seniors.

When guys who are 20 years old cannot put together a coherent sentence in the one language they are supposed to know (only one, mind you), it's just sad. And no one seems to notice or care.

So the teams I root for are the ones which graduate the highest percentage of their athletes, and hopefully in some field other than journalism or American Studies. Vanderbilt would be one of the best examples in the South. Duke also does a pretty good job in this area. But look at these guys playing for, say, Florida or Arkansas.

Back in the early 80's, a guy named Dana Kirk was the coach at Memphis State. Memphis State was in the Final Four that year. There was a player named Baskerville Holmes who was sick during the sweet sixteen round. The national media cornered Mr. Holmes and asked him if he'd be able to play in the next round. These were his actual words, which I will never forget:

"I feels mo' better dan whut I done yesserday."

The problem is not with the guy who wants to be in the NBA and make a million bucks. More power to him. The problem is the message it sends back to his neighborhood. All the little kids back there know he can't read and write, and they now think it's stupid to go to school and try to learn anything.

Then, when these multitudes do not become NBA players, they might just be the ones stealing your stereo and perhaps raping your wife just for fun in the process.

While in general I agree with what dannye has written (other than the non-sequitor there at the end) he misses one rather important point. Many sports programs make money for the college. At the University of Texas where worship of the football program is somewhat less important than worship of the state of Texas and somewhat more important than worship of God. The football program not only supports itself, but goes on to support the non-profitable sports programs at UT and then contributes (a very small amount) to the actual purpose of the univeristy. Not only that, but there is a correlation between the performance of the football team and the donations recieved from alumni.

The conclusion I choose to draw from this is that college athletes are not students at an educational institution who happen to also play sports. They are, in fact, paid advertisers. They go out on the field/court/whatever and do their sport thing while wearing the logo of an educational institution. In return that institution gives the athletes diplomas and makes it look like they got an education.

An alternative, and perhaps more amusing, way to think of college athletes is as the college equivalent of those kids who come knocking at your door selling overpriced candy so they can get new playground equipment at their elementry school.

I've taught at a prominent basketball school, so I know how galling it can be to discover that a particular student-athlete should never have been admitted to the university. (Of course, it's even more galling when some of the legit undergrads or professors are just as bad as the worst of the athletes.)

Now I don't mean to condemn a kid who's just plain nervous. After all, these are 18- or 21-year-olds who--mere minutes after working themselves to exhaustion on the court or in the field--find themselves standing in front of a famous sportscaster who's peppering them with a zillion stupid questions while a TV camera broadcasts their answers to millions of people around the world. So if they "um" and "y'know" a little bit, I can understand that and don't mind it too much.

But nothing excuses the level of ineptitude that dannye describes. I remember when a few years ago, I was sitting in a bar in Chapel Hill when a UNC player--I think it was Brian Reese--came on the screen to be interviewed. The entire bar groaned; everyone knew that he was about to embarrass himself and the university as a whole by again revealing that he simply couldn't put together a coherent sentence to save his life.

Fortunately, some players do manage to sound reasonably competent, and dannye's right when he says that Duke is better than most. According to one article I read, Duke's Shane Battier deplores the tendency of players to sound functionally illiterate in post-game interviews, and therefore decided to take a public-speaking course to learn how to present himself in a better light. Now he's a media darling and everyone thinks he's wonderful. It's by no means clear whether Battier is really an intelligent, decent, and modest kid when the cameras are off, but at least he can speak properly and knows when it's a good idea to do so (there are plenty of people out there who couldn't do it if they had to). Now there's a sensible idea; why shouldn't coaches make student athletes--particularly the starters or the media darlings--take public-speaking courses? Obviously, not all of them will turn into brilliant politicians or actors, but I think most of them will benefit at least a little.

Sometimes, though, the corruption goes deeper than that. A few years ago, I was watching George Washington University's basketball team in the NCAA Tournament. During the timeouts, I noticed something strange: Alexander Koul, the team's Eastern European center, never joined the huddle. Each time the team ran over to the sidelines to talk to the coach, Koul would be standing on the edge of the huddle talking to someone else. "What is this?" I thought. "Is Koul just too arrogant to participate in the huddle? Does he think he's in the NBA or something?" A few minutes later, the color commentator revealed the truth:

"For those of you who are wondering, the man in the suit next to Alexander Koul is his translator. He sits on the bench with Koul and in this case is translating Coach Whoever's instructions for him."

"Oh!" I thought, "well, that's all right..."

W H A T ?

A translator? The kid has a translator? What the hell? If this guy can't understand basketball commands in English, how does he handle his lectures? How does this guy write his papers? What, does he write them in Croatian or something and then get the translator to convert them to English? Heck, does Koul write them at all? Why does this kid deserve a translator? Nobody pays for a translator to help the foreign exchange student who's struggling with a teacher who mumbles or speaks too quickly. Nobody pays for a translator for the foreign graduate student who's assigned to teach introductory physics.

As everyone knows, it's money. The universities in question appear to reason as follows:

"If we admit this dum-dum, who can put a ball through a hoop really well, we will lose some of our integrity. But in the process, we will rake in lots and lots of money. We can then use that money for good purposes, like renovating the library or building a student union that doesn't look like a dungeon. So a small moral compromise can lead to great benefits. It's worth it."

I doubt it's possible to stop colleges from admitting underqualified athletes without doing away with college athletics entirely. Still, it's probably worth making a big stink whenever a school looks like it's really letting its standards slide--in other words, by increasing the size of the aforementioned moral compromise. That said, it's hard to know on which statistics we should rely when we're trying to decide whether a college is behaving honorably. Dannye suggests that an honest college will graduate a large percentage of its athletes. Well, maybe; but maybe a school with high graduation rates actually lowered its standards and is graduating a lot of illiterates or incompetents. A lower graduation rate suggests that the university's not lowering the bar, but also implies that it's admitting people it shouldn't. At any rate, I suspect that some unscrupulous colleges will simply alter the standards to produce whatever statistic will placate the NCAA officials.

So it looks like we're stuck listening to semiliterate college graduates, at least for now; I just hope that athletes will at least have the decency and the integrity to try to speak well. Their scholarship is a privilege--one that I wish they wouldn't abuse.

Sadly, the popularity and commercialization of sports at Division I schools has given all college sports a negative connotation. Serious athletes at every school, in every sport, must battle the stereotypes that come from these connotations. Believe it or not, not everyone who practices four hours a day to achieve perfection in their sport sacrifices their academic efforts to do so.

I won't deny that the state of college sports at many schools is shameful. However, the typical frenzy that surrounds football bowl games, the Final Four, and other major championships goes against the original intent of college athletics. This original intent was present before the almighty dollar took over, and reflected the idea of a well-rounded individual who would strive for excellence in all areas. The primary purpose of the NCAA is, according to their website at, "To initiate, stimulate and improve intercollegiate athletics programs for student-athletes and to promote and develop educational leadership, physical fitness, athletics excellence and athletics participation as a recreational pursuit." Unfortunately, the restrictions placed on so-called "student-athletes" are not very strict at all. When was the last time you heard of a first-round draft pick's eligibility being revoked for bad grades? The number of these athletes that leave school early for professional leagues has been increasing steadily, thus defeating the purpose of being a student-athlete in the first place.

Though the idea of a scholarly athlete is foreign in the mind of the average American, such individuals do exist. The bastardized image of the student who places athletics before academics is often the only one revealed to the media. The strong tradition of athletics in addition to scholarship lives on, though, without much attention. The tradition is present more strongly in certain sports than others, and can be observed more clearly in certain institutions than others.

Most of the popular sports today are based on natural talent. Either you're a good quarterback or you're not. As a result, most professional athletes and elite collegiate athletes have a poor work ethic, as evidenced by the poor attendance at many teams' training camps. Such laziness wouldn't cut it in an endurance sport such as rowing. The strongest man in the world would not be able to row effectively without constant practice. On the other hand, I once made a claim that any average man could break 6:50 for a 2k on the ergometer with one year of serious training. This is a claim I have yet to retract and one that many of my teammates agree with. When I say "serious training", however, I mean exactly that. It will probably take a serious, painful schedule of weight lifting, running, rowing, and erging to achieve that mark. With that kind of commitment, though, anyone could achieve a 6:50, which is not a great leap from the intermediate level of rowing for lightweight men. With a similar level of commitment to football, for instance, an average man may not even achieve mediocrity. Of course, genetics play a huge factor in rowing, but without the commitment to be great, genetics are nothing.

Back in the days when both words in the term "student athlete" carried equal weight, it was understood that the student athlete would work for his accomplishments, whether they're on the field or in the classroom. Now this understanding has been destroyed by the cocky Allen Iversons and Shaquille O'Neals who have had excellence handed to them.

For those of us who have to earn greatness though sweat, blood, tears, and vomit, the stereotypical image of the great athlete makes life difficult. I devote a huge chunk of time to my sport. Often, workouts drain my legs so severely that I have to walk up and down stairs backwards. I bring huge bottles of diet soda with me to class when I have to cut weight, and I'm taunted for not being able to eat. I wear the shirts of the men I've defeated to class as a symbol of my achievement. In speaking to very old alumni, I've come to understand that there was a time when these images would win me some form of respect among my peers, rowers or not. This is no longer the case.

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