Sunday, November 30, 2008

Athlete Clustering at NCAA Institutions

If you think student-athletes are more the former and less the latter, you also believe the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) crowns a true football champion. A recent USA Today report suggests that NCAA schools are more concerned with eligibility than education.

The paper compiled data on juniors and seniors in five sports – football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and softball – at 142 colleges across the country and found that athletes “cluster” in certain majors at many of those institutions. Which begs the question: Are athletes encouraged to enroll in easy majors and easy courses in order to maintain eligibility?

Coaches and administrators who defend the practice of clustering say no, and suggest that athletes are merely enrolling in popular majors. That position would be more defensible if the percentage of athletes mirrored the percentage of the student population enrolled in such majors. But that isn’t the case at most institutions.

Critics suggest that clustering is one method of complying with the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) system. The APR, instituted in 2003, was designed to encourage higher graduation rates for athletes by imposing penalties such as forfeiture of TV revenue, exclusion from bowl and tournament appearances, and loss of scholarships for universities that did not meet the NCAA’s retention and eligibility guidelines.

When the NCAA instituted the APR, it also adopted more stringent rules regarding the progress athletes make towards their degree. But the governing body simultaneously lowered admission standards, allowing schools to accept less academically qualified students.

Talk about your perfect storm. Universities across the land were faced with pushing “academically challenged” students through school more quickly. All while making sure said athlete fulfilled the primary purpose for which he/she was enrolled: To bring glory to State U. on game day. And the latter activity was always more important than the former, at least in the eyes of coaches and many members of the administration.

The existence of athlete clustering is undeniable. At the University of Michigan, for example, 31 of 41 junior and senior football players majored in “general studies” in 2007. General studies, referred to as “university studies” at schools such as the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and the University of New Mexico, is best described as a major that really isn’t a major.

At many institutions, students enrolled in general studies are allowed to cherry pick the easiest courses from all the majors offered on campus. The result might be a degree plan that includes, say, an activities class such as basketball or golf from Health and Physical Education, basket weaving from Early American Studies, and sports public speaking from Communications.

None of those courses in and of themselves are irrelevant. But cobbled together in a degree plan, they prepare a graduate for exactly what kind of career? But I digress. A scholarship athlete’s career goal at many institutions is to remain eligible. Which, given the time commitments required of athletes at Division 1 institutions, is difficult to do by taking chemistry, engineering and physics.

Athletes face enormous pressure - from coaches, administrators, parents, peers - to maintain eligibility. An additional source of pressure exists in the form of academic advisors who are employed and paid by the institution. C. Keith Harrison, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, told USA Today academic advisors help student-athletes “major in eligibility with a minor in beating the system.”

There are athletes who compete at the highest level and still obtain a quality education. One example is Florida State safety Myron Rolle, who missed part of the November 22 game against Maryland while interviewing, successfully, for one of the 32 Rhodes Scholarships awarded annually. But he’s the exception, not the rule. And even Rolle experienced pressure from a coach, Seminoles’ defensive coordinator, Mickey Andrews, who publicly criticized him for studying too much last year, saying it affected Rolle’s preparation to play football.

The NCAA’s position is that if clustering exists, it’s a problem individual institutions should address, since curriculum and course quality issues aren’t the concern of the national governing body. But if the NCAA created the problem initially - which can’t be definitively determined without further research – shouldn’t they be the ones to initiate changes to benefit student-athletes?

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University, teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming, and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at

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