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The Odd Couple: When College Admissions and Athletics Collide


From the looks of it, the beginning of a new academic year will be forever married to the start of the college football season.  Fans, coaches, student-athletes, and TV executives alike celebrate this perfect partnership with an exuberance not seen this side of Christmas morning.  But, as any honest husband and wife will tell you, marriage is fraught with struggles and disagreements, leading to tugs of war that necessitate compromise.

America’s major colleges have competitive admission processes.  Simultaneously, major college coaches must field competitive teams to keep their athletic directors, alumni, and presidents happy.  However, a student who possesses both college-level intelligence and college-level athleticism is a scarce commodity.  When a recruit with unquestionable athletic talent owns a questionable academic record, should the college’s admission standards be secondary to the needs of its athletic programs?

A few years ago, ESPN asked a panel of student-athletes that exact question.  Navy football player Tyler Tidwell’s response summed up the dilemma: “I think many idealists would say admissions should be solely based on academics.  I would probably ask them how excited they were the last time their alma mater defeated their archrival in a football game and then ask them how they think their star quarterback got in the school.”

The NCAA requires high school graduates to have passed certain core courses before they can be ruled eligible for athletic competition as a college freshman.  In Division I, the NCAA utilizes a sliding scale to determine the minimum GPA and standardized test score necessary for eligibility.  The higher the student’s high school GPA, the lower the test score that is needed.  While those initial eligibility requirements establish uniform standards, they do not represent the unique admission criteria in place at individual schools – criteria that is sometimes relaxed for admission of student-athletes.

By no means is this a general attack on the intellectual capabilities of athletes.  Back in 2002, Craig Krenzel’s dual role as a molecular genetics major and as quarterback of the national champion Ohio State Buckeyes was well-documented.  Myron Rolle starred at Florida State as an All-American safety from 2006 to 2008 before accepting a Rhoades scholarship.  And there are plenty of other less-publicized examples of concurrent athletic and academic prowess.

For the borderline applicants in question, there are compelling arguments that admission standards should be relaxed for student-athletes.  They bring value to institutions as athletic performers just as class valedictorians enhance schools’ academic reputations.  In addition, the focus and effort it takes for athletes to train, practice, travel, and compete unfairly decreases the amount of time available to succeed academically.  Most of all, the powerhouse programs of college athletics have pressure to win, even if it means robbing Peter to pay Paul.  The athletic department is often referred to as the “front porch” of a university.  For the recognition a championship season brings a school, compromising admission standards and scrapping idealism seems well worth it in our sports-crazed society.

Unfortunately, when a school’s admission requirements are lessened for student-athletes, those individuals may have to enroll in classes beyond their academic capabilities.  Worse yet, athletes may be ushered into cake-walk courses that perpetuate their academic shortcomings.  Relaxing admission standards also communicates two negative messages to athletes: first, that they are not smart enough to attend the school, and second, that what they accomplish on the field is infinitely more important than what they achieve in the classroom.

It would be a fascinating exercise if admission decisions were made without knowledge of the applicant’s potential as a scholarship student-athlete. That type of blind review is, however, off the table in the big-money era of college athletics.  Whether they like it or not, admission officials know the truth: the athletic department wears the pants in this marriage.  The elite Ivy League schools, who do not formally award athletic scholarships, still actively recruit athletes that can help them win on the fields of play.  These student-athletes are awarded “need-based” aid.  Their high school GPAs and their standardized test scores frequently fall below the mean scores for all entering students.  Even Harvard wants to beat Yale on the football field.

Patrick Brennan is a Teaching Assistant and doctoral student at the United States Sports Academy.  A licensed attorney, Mr. Brennan is a graduate of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and Michigan State University.  For more information on Academy programs, please visit www.ussa.edu.


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