During what I tend to consider my lost years, I enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. While teaching composition to pay my way through school, I had my fair share of athletes in class. Contrary to popular belief, athletes are among the hardest working students on campus.
Their entire life is regimented to an almost military degree: Wake at an ungodly hour for practice and team meetings. Attend required study halls on top of the usual class load. Watch tape. See to conditioning. Do homework. Only rest when asleep. Then, wake up and do it all over again.
But a busy schedule isn't their only source of stress. Often, and certainly at Arkansas, collegiate athletes are plunged into unfamiliar socio-economic contexts. Our recruiting territory covers the most economically depressed regions in the country. Our school is housed by one of the most affluent. Back home, their parents stretch to meet the demands of campus life. A scholarship can't cover every need. At the same time, their economic resources are severely limited by NCAA regulation.
Throughout their time at the university, players are too often babysat by “academic advisers” focused exclusively on the immediate needs of the team, i.e. maintaining a grade point high enough to keep them eligible. Football players sacrifice academics in the fall semester and scramble to make up for lost time in the spring and over the summer. They're advised to drop out of classes when things get difficult. The struggle for eligibility becomes self-defeating. (No telling how far behind some find themselves at the end of their athletic careers.)
One summer session while I was teaching, I grew accustomed to certain faces peeking in the window of my classroom door. I had a starter in class, a sophomore whose eligibility for the upcoming season was in play. So the advisers made regular visits: checking attendance, checking up. At the time, they struck me as backslapping bullies, eager to grease the wheels with a little masculine chumminess. I answered their false companionship with a shit-eating grin but worried about their effect on my student.
Athletes sign an academic release when they join the team, and the advisers insisted that I update them constantly on the player's progress. They made it clear that I should let them know as soon as possible whether the player should drop my class. They seemed sure of his failure and spoke freely about giving up right in front of my student.
I'll never forget the way he was pressed up against the wall outside my classroom: them looking at me, me looking at him, him looking at the ground. Learning is a delicate process. It requires confidence, patience and respect. Here was a black kid from the South — already having fallen prey to the abysmal standards of education at home, now going to school in a region characterized by a long history of racial conflict and a minuscule black population — with two old white guys breathing down his neck, trying to figure out whether he should just quit.
Mind you, my experience was under a different coaching regime, a different Athletic Department, but apparently not enough has changed. I honestly have no idea whether my student ever graduated, but I know for a fact that less than half of his black teammates do. According to the recent TIDES Academic Progress Study, Arkansas only graduates 40 percent of its African American football players. Its shameful overall APR (Academic Progress Rate) is tied for second worst in the conference and ranked 60th division-wide.
As both a columnist and a fan, I've struggled with the ambiguous morality of a multi-billion dollar industry built on the backs of so-called “amateur” athletes.
Now, even the prospect of a free education has proven a false promise. Yet it's not our students who are failing. It's our university that is failing them. Student athletes should be able to expect an even trade for all their sacrifices. Barring that, the old concept of “amateur athletics” reeks of exploitation. If enrollment in classes is all just lip service, as these numbers suggest, if Arkansas can't even promise athletes an education, then that's not a fair exchange. That's just a disgrace.