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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Brian, I currently work in collegiate athletics and want to provide some more perspective on the Carty article. (My background quickly, if it matters...UM BA in Econ 2003 [started in Civil Engineering!] / worked in Midwestern mid-major athletic dept. from 04-07 / start work in Ivy League athletic dept. in T-minus 8 days)

First, you are correct in your assertion that "a similar examination of any program in the country would turn an equal or greater level of academic offense." Just because it's happening everywhere doesn't make it okay. Also, we're talking about one very particular situation at UM with Prof. Hagen. Clearly, there is something funny going on there. However, your response doesn't talk about the questions/issues/problems that Carty brings up.

I agree with much of what you say, but UM should be held to a higher standard than 'any program in the country'. Seriously, today's student-athletes lead extraordinary lives - the amount of time that each person spends on his/her sport (practice, strength & conditioning, travel, competition, study hall, community service, etc.) is astounding. And on top of all that, they still have to find time for school. However, todays student-athletes receive an incredible amount of assistance (tutors, study hall, breaks on missing classes/tests, specific advisers, etc.). That's all well-and-good in my eyes. The university pays it back for the dedication and commitment.

But, a student-athlete shouldn't be receiving special assistance from individual professors, any moreso than the rest of the general population. Is it so hard to believe that Hagen is a rogue professor that gives special breaks to UM athletes? Is it also so hard to believe that UM investigated Hagen and found sketchy stuff going on but 1) received a bunch of pressure from Athletics to not do anything about it (believe me, it does happen) and/or 2) didn't want to throw esteemed Prof. Hagens name in the dirt because it would make them look bad, or for fear or repercussion.

The fact (or assertion) that academic services staff funneled student-athletes into Hagen's classes isn't surprising, but it doesn't make it okay. I'm not really sure where the fault lies, you can't blame the staff for trying their damndest to keep kids eligible, you can't blame the student-athletes for taking an easy A, and you can't blame cool Prof. Hagen for wanting to be an insider. For me, it comes down to 'lack of institutional control' by UM administration.

But, Brian please don't use the argument that you can't graduate student-athletes without 'hijinks' as your response to Carty.
Multiple part-response. Part I: "Everyone does it" does not make it okay, that is correct. What makes it okay is the bizarre system in place wherein the only way to make it into a potentially lucrative career in the NFL (and various pro basketball leagues -- one-and-done guys are exceedingly uncommon compared to guys who stay two or three or four years and either make the NBA or head to Europe) is to go to a school you (very probably) aren't prepared to go to.

Michael Oher is the platonic ideal here: a guy who has no business in anything approximating a University except on the football field, but as long as he can maintain his eligibility will get the specialized coaching and training required to turn his massive frame into a golden ticket. Is it more moral to say "sorry, Mike, but please return to the Memphis ghetto"?

I am not bothered by the idea that Michigan admits a certain subset of students who are amongst the 99th percentile in ability in their chosen field -- sports -- but lag badly in other areas because I don't see a difference between sports and other sorts of entertainment-based fields that are academically sanctioned.

The argument I'm trying to advance is different from "everyone does it": everyone should do it, within reason. No one is served by stripping a kid of his eligibility and, later, his scholarship, because he can't hack his coursework. "Won't" is different, of course, and in cases where players aren't going to class and aren't putting in an honest effort there have to be repercussions. But these are largely remedial students; it shouldn't come as a surprise that they need guidance.

Part II: I've never subscribed to the whole "Michigan should be held to a higher standard" thing. Michigan should be held to the exact same standard everyone else should be: to do their best to educate and provide a platform for a stable adult life for their athletes. A large number of athletes deemed eligible by the NCAA are so far behind an average Michigan undergraduate that they would have no chance of maintaining eligibility without the full-time academic support Michigan provides. I think they care about their kids' outcomes and try very hard to keep them eligible, educate them as much as they can given each individual's starting point, and get them degrees. Nothing in the articles changed my opinion on that.

Part III: The Hagen stuff looks bad, and in certain cases it's clear Michigan has exploited him to keep players eligible. That shouldn't happen. But there's enough of a non-athlete population (about 50 over the three years surveyed) for comparison, and it appears that Hagen's just an easy A for anyone.

It does bother me that Hagen appears to be an option for multiple classes for a few students. I don't mind the possibility of one Get Out of Jail Free card, as long as the appropriate amount of work is done. But, like, Chad Kolarik appears to be taking a major in Professor Hagen. Though I love Chad (woo Friday hat trick!), that shouldn't happen.

I'm not trying to excuse the U entirely here: the Ann Arbor News did indeed turn up a few incidents and one general trend that should not be repeated and should be stopped, respectively. But, man... other than the stuff on Day I the rest of it has been weak sauce.

Part IV: This is obviously not ideal. Ideally, you could major in the thing you came to campus to do and spend most of your time on -- say 30 pass-fail credits available in it -- and the University could come to grips with the fact that many of the guys in this major need some remedial courses to get them up to speed. The important thing here, IMO, is to measure progress from a benchmark set when the player arrives on campus. Measure his academic ability when he arrives and when he leaves, compile an index and always strive to improve it.

I'm tired of living in this fairyland where universities have to lie and athletes have to struggle and fans have to close their eyes at the purported sausage factory; we should acknowledge the reality of the situation and just go about the business of doing it. We're here. We're sports teams inexplicably attached to institutions of learning that have drifted pretty far from their original intent anyway. Get used to it.
Brian –

I’m already resigned to the fact that you will bash and denigrate Carty, and basically say one of the following:

* There’s no problem with academics in the Athletic Department.
* Carty is a blowhard.
* Harbaugh doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and is a traitor to boot.
* Every big time school does it.

To me, it’s all just self-justiification, and shows an inability on the part of many Blue fans to be honest with themselves about what’s going on. It’s a little bit like an alcoholic saying “I don’t have a problem with drinking. I drink. I get drunk. I fall down. No problem . . . what’s the big deal?”

The statement of Horton in the last segment rings true to me. [] Blow off a session in the weight room, or with Rodriguez, or with Beilein, and see what happens. Blow off a class, and Acho and her gang will cover for you. The priority is on maintaining eligibility, and on sports teams winning. Whatever it takes to achieve this, do it.

However, I don’t have a problem with this. As long as colleges are functioning as an unofficial minor league, the academics will always be an afterthough. Whether it’s Greg Oden, or Terry Mills, or Petway, or Gabe Watson, they’ll jump through the right hoops to stay eligible, knowing that they’re really just honing their skills for the pro leagues. We all know that’s what is really happening, and I don’t really have a problem with it. They don’t care to get a degree, I don’t care whether get one either. Just win, baby, and maybe bring home a National Title every ten years or so.

There are, however, two things that bug me.

1) I’m tired of Michigan homers bragging about our academics, and dissing USC, or OSU, or Florida, or FSU, or LSU, or even ND. I can’t see that we’re significantly different, at least in terms of Athletics and Academics. If we want to really be academic, we need to go the way of the Univ. of Chicago or Harvard or Princeton or even Northwestern. Either academics really matters for all students, or it doesn’t. Sure, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that LSU and FSU are several notches below Michigan academically, both for athletes and across the board. But the differences with OSU and USC and ND and UT (Texas) are much smaller. I suspect that one of the reasons OSU gets to Michigan so much is because in many ways, we’re so similar. Ok, for academics alone, Michigan is rated higher, but let’s face it: both are the flagship state school in two loser rustbelt industrial states.

2) It bugs me that athletes who do have a brain are pushed away from actually getting a worthwhile degree. I used to like seeing that there were engineering students and pre-med and pre-law students among those on the football team. Those days seem to be over. Let’s use Harbaugh as an example. Could he have studied history and succeeded? I believe so. Would he have been able to devote as much time to athletics? Undoubtedly not. But so what. I feel like saying to athletes interested in academics, go to Stanford. Go to Northwestern. Go to Princeton or Harvard. Don’t come to Michigan, because you’ll be shielded from the real student body, and from real profs, and real academic standards. You’ll be pushed into 3 or 4 joke classes a term with joke grades so you can daydream and play video games on your laptop during those classes you attend, and focus on the REAL reason you’re here: win baby, just win.

Nothing’s gonna change, so why don’t you just go back to covering sports. That’s what most of us reader geeks are really interested in anyway.

Steve in the Chicago area
I don't know whether to be angry at Steve for obviously not reading anything I've written about this or happy that he's making virtually the same arguments. As for the bullets:

There's no problem with academics in the Athletic Department. The AA News turned up a few things that are obvious abuses and a systematic acknowledgment of a thing called "reality". There are some small problems and one action item: independent study by athletes should be severely curtailed.

Carty is a blowhard. I'm not sure why the entire Michigan internet is so pissed at Carty specifically when there are four names on all the stories and this is a big seven-month investigative push by the Ann Arbor News in general. He's part of it; I blame I Are Serious Editor more than Carty.

And, yeah, there's some blame. For seven months of investigation the Ann Arbor News had better get some mileage out of it, so they put their headlines in WAR-sized caps and spend an entire week when they had about a single story's worth of actual news. They also credulously accept assertions from other schools that they're shocked, shocked Michigan would do something like this. They misleadingly headline a piece "General studies uncommon at Michigan's 'peer' universities" in an article with a chart of majors that shows severe clustering at half the Big Ten schools and Notre Dame. Majors named "general studies" are indeed uncommon; majors with the same effect are universal. They refused to interview Mary Sue Coleman because she wanted to do it over email. They finish the article on the Ross Academic Center with a damning quote from a women's basketball player... who was at the U for one year six years ago.

How many positive quotes did they leave out? How can we be sure of the general tone of their conversations with former athletes? Why choose to, at every turn, emphasize detractors and the disgruntled? I'm about the worst judge available for this, but I'm not impressed by the standard of journalism in these pieces. There is a small story here spun out into a BIG STORY.

Harbaugh doesn't know what he's talking about and is a traitor to boot. Harbaugh does know what he's talking about but suggested Stanford doesn't do similar things (wrong) and sold out the university that got him into the NFL for some notoriety and a bit of a recruiting boost. So... yeah.

Every big time school does it. See above.

As to the things that bother: I am dead with you on #1. I do think that maybe Michigan is more concerned than many schools about actually having their kids go to their easy classes and do their easy assignments based solely on anecdotal evidence, but it's a matter of degree.

On #2: I sincerely doubt Harbaugh actually gave a crap about history; I think maybe he had a vague idea he'd be a history major because he liked history in high school and was quickly disabused of that notion when he got to Michigan. And Northwestern and Stanford shield their football players like mother hens, man.

As to the larger issue: when I got to Michigan I had a lot of AP credits* and thus could take some upper-level courses as a freshman. I visited my academic advisor with a plan to take something like 17 credits, including a 300-level biochem course. The advisor told me I was biting off more than I could chew and I should scale back. I scoffed, and blew through my first semester without problems, resolving that the advisor was a douchebag and not returning. My second semester I signed up for History of Africa after 1850, a 400-level CAAS class that fulfilled the U's race & ethnicity requirement. There was a guy in it who looked like he owned every Arrested Development bootleg out there; everyone in the class seemed about 35 and was angry. The first grade was halfway into the semester; I argued that Heart of Darkness was not a racist book no matter what Chinua Achebe said, provided some shiny happy people handholding towards the end, and got a C-. I'm pretty sure was the first C I'd seen on anything ever. I freaked.

Three days later I was the proud recipient of a W (for "withdrawn") on my transcript; the next semester I enrolled in Anthro 101, a class with multiple-choice scantron finals.

Moral: shielding is probably a good thing in most cases. And where it's not, the magic of Zoltan (a B-school enrollee) happens.

That said, you're right. It's bothersome that for 90% of football players a challenging major is completely unrealistic. I would like to see the NCAA institute a policy change that allows players one or two years of scholarship after their eligibility expires so guys like Alex Mitchell and Jeremy Ciulla can get whatever degree their academic ability allows. I don't see how it's realistic for Michigan to fix it on their own.

*(note to high schoolers planning on attending Michigan: take every AP class you can get your greasy mitts on, especially physics. Unless something's changed recently, each is worth 4 or 5 credits or so -- physics is a whopping 10! -- and if you have 40-something you register with upperclassmen. Result: nothing you would reasonably want to take is ever full.)

Items of interest sent to me that don't require such a lengthy response:
My general reaction is that the NCAA tends to look for disparities in
how athletes and non-athletes are treated, and that the only hint of
disparity from Carty's article is that athletes were advised to enroll
in one particular professor's independent study section. There's no
evidence that, once enrolled, athletes were treated more favorably in
his section than the rest of the student population. I also don't
understand why it's surprising that advisers for the athletes would
favor enrolling them in one professor's section over another: if
athletes have been successful in his section before, enjoyed it,
and/or were able to enroll in it, why not try to enroll more of them
in it?

As for other criticisms levied at this prof: one of my labmates was
retroactively enrolled in an independent study course more than 12
months after the enrollment dates for which it appeared on his
transcript, and retroactively assigned a grade of satisfactory. That
is, he enrolled for it in 2008 but it appeared on his transcript for
2006. This type of thing happens all of the time, especially in
graduate programs. As an undergrad, it's a matter of meeting with
your advisor and getting their signature.

You're just as aware as I am that college is what you make of it.
Just as there are courses that don't require you to show up, do
reading, or even do any work in general other than the occasional easy
paper or exam (e.g. Astronomy 101/102, any American Culture class, any
of the Geology mini-courses) there are plenty of courses on the other
side that require much more than the estimated 4 hours per week *
credit hours (e.g. EECS 470). There's nothing in the Carty article to
suggest that athletes are being treated any differently than the
non-athlete population.
Another item that addresses the really late independent study add:

I disagree with your first point that adding IS midterm is by default, a scam. All I can relate is a personal experience.

I added IS midterm because I decided to withdraw from another course in which I was significantly struggling. I was accepted to every graduate school of my choice, turned down MIT, and was awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which is an extremely competitive award. Academic aptitude and work ethic weren't a problem.

I was failing a math class. I'm not a football player, quite obviously, so there is a distinction: I was overextending myself with physics classes and the most difficult math classes that served no purpose other than challenging myself. There is a big difference between failing rocks for jocks as a natural science requirement, and failing topology, an abstract math course that you take for nothing other than fun.

It was clear after midterms I was going to fail the course despite going to office hours every day and sitting in on another section taught by another instructor. The instructor told me as much. I dropped my most easy class before the drop date to make more time for this course. Rather than suffer a D+ in that class, and witness my grades in others go from the A level to low B's, I dropped the class, took the W, my grades went back to A's in my relevant classes, but because I had previously dropped the earlier class, I needed credits mid-term. I took IS. I didn't take it for 4 credits, it was 2, but I think I added March 1.

Nowhere in the article does it say they received 4 credits. For all we know, it was 1-2. Now I'd agree, every time a football player struggles, the answer isn't "take a W, and let's add an IS so you don't lose eligibility." But if those players only had 1-2 W's on their transcripts during their time at Michigan, it's not fraud. It would be fraud if the number of credits they received was more than the work they performed.

I am disappointed they sent those athletes to Professor Hagen. In my opinion, proper academic advisement would be "withdraw from the class, but we need to add a mini-course or independent study to keep your credits above 12. It is your job to find someone." If those advisers contacted Professor Hagan and said "we have a problem, these kids need to drop a class or they will lose eligibility, so can you take them on?" that is fraudulent. But if it only happened once or twice in their careers, and the work they did meets the standards of the academic department, it's a gray area, one that is unfortunate, but not necessarily wrong.

I personally know several other students who withdrew from classes and added IS mid-term -- them all in graduate school at top 10 institutions in their fields -- and the right decision in that situation is to withdraw. Then, your advisers need to ensure that the next semester, you are taking a balanced course load, are in the correct classes, and you have the resources so it doesn't happen again. But a one time midterm W and adding credits with IS does not equal fraud. It happens to common students too. Obviously, the reasons behind a student struggling will vary, and there is logarithmic separation between the difficulties of some classes. But with 100 people on the football roster, it doesn't strike me as odd for 1-2 to drop a class midterm and add an IS or mini-course last minute to boost their credits. I honestly feel they are receiving proper advisement in that situation as long as the work they do for their IS is commiserate with the professors (and thereby departments) expectations.

If those players were advised to do that so they'd maintain eligibility, is that any different than me deciding to have a W on my transcript and 3 A's rather than a D+ and 3 B's one semester because I wanted to go to graduate school?


John Blum
LS&A 2003
Topology for fun! Jesus! John Blum frightens me.

And he is right, the AA news does not reveal the credits received by Riley and Watson. If it's two, then the late IS add might be reasonable. (Did they provide this information? No. Did they have it? Yes. Is there any reason to omit the number of credit hours? No. Does this bring the integrity of the reporting here into further question? Yes.) It is possible that nothing untoward happened here.

But this is a slope more slippery than Sam McGuffie. I know the school makes all sorts of allowances for kids who find themselves in academic trouble whether it's for not being able to spell "cat" or signing up for topology on a whim. Here, however, the university has a powerful incentive other than being nice to juggle schedules and the end result is very beneficial to the U. These situations are begging to be abused. This is not 'Nam, there are rules, and it looks very much like Michigan skirted them so a couple players would not be ineligible for the bowl game when they probably should have been. Michigan should have bit the bullet, put them in the Hagen class the following semester, and dealt with the consequences.

Caveat: I don't have the full story here and am going by appearances in a story designed to provide the appearance of wrongdoing. I acknowledge this could be a legitimate occurrence; Occam's razor suggests otherwise.