Sunday, December 20, 2009

Football, Basketball, Rah, Rah, Rah. Sigh.

There are many athletes in my classes but there are few who could be considered scholar-athletes.  The women athletes, including the basketball players, are typically the best students: they make few excuses, they get their work done on time; and when they know they have an upcoming trip, they arrange to get their work in early. I have never had a flaky woman athlete.  

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin

Students who are members of the crew teams are also fairly good students. Golfers, swimmers; tennis, Lacrosse, baseball, and soccer players, and the other sports are good to middling, not remarkable students usually, but they are decent and do not cause one undo aggravation. I can only remember one swimmer who gave me trouble: He was absent much of the semester, missing tests and papers. He failed. The next semester, he showed up to take the class again; he was present for a few weeks then he started missing classes. I sent him a note telling him that he really didn’t want to fail the class again. He came for two sessions then reverted to his previous behavior.  He failed again. The third semester that he showed up at my door, I stopped him coming in.  You don’t want to put us both through this aggravation again, I told him; take something else.  He did.

Then there are the football players, and worse, the basketball players. Is it any surprise that the university spends more money on them than any other sports? It is a toss-up as to who are the worse students. They have early morning practice and frequently come to classes to sleep. They have afternoon practice so the rest of the day is scheduled around them. They have tutors and others who keep track of them but we, the professors, and the athletic staffs, have different ideas of what a good student is. They not only miss class because they are traveling for the school team but they frequently schedule doctor and other appointments for the hours they should be in class and they lack the maturity to realize that gaming the system will not help them in the long run.

It is a very schizophrenic system. On one hand, promising athletes are courted for their academic prowess, and the academic rules are bent to accommodate them; on the other hand, they are worked so hard in their sport that they have very little chance of doing well in school. By “doing well” I don’t mean just maintaining a gentlemen’s “C.”  Many of them have cavalier attitudes towards their schoolwork. I have gotten in their faces on more than one occasion trying to get them to focus on their schoolwork because the plain fact is that 99.9% of them will never play sports professionally.

Their reliance on tutors explains a great deal about them. Some years ago, I had an exchange with a basketball player whose essay exams were far, far worse than his term papers. I leaned into him about working on his writing. What difference did it make, he demanded to know, whether he did it alone or had a lot of help. “You won’t have tutors holding your hand for the rest of your life,” I told him. “What happens when you have a little boy who says, ‘Daddy, how do I write a paragraph?’ Will you tell him, wait while I get my tutor? Tutors are supposed to help you learn to do things on your own; they aren’t supposed to be crutches!” Tragically, he was killed when a drunk driver crashed into his car; he didn’t live long enough to have a family.

Tyson Wheeler, center.

I can only remember two student athletes who really excelled in their studies in spite of the extreme demands of their sports:  Football player Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, and basketball player, Tyson Wheeler (Class of 1998).  Ibrahim was a stellar character who had more energy than the sun. He was an “A” student, a poet, president of the student body, captain of the football team, and the winner of the 1998 Diversity Award for Student Excellence: a star in any universe.  I asked him once how he managed to study so much in spite of all his extracurricular activities, especially the demands of the football team. He said that he set aside time to study, and he plugged his ears on the team bus and studied; Tyson gave a similar response. It is a simple answer but one that reflects their self-discipline. If only I had more students like them!

Sometimes, frustrated at the cavalier attitude many of them have towards their classes, I have thought wistfully about scheduling all my classes for times that they couldn’t possibly attend.  It wouldn’t be right and I would not do it, but it has crossed my mind. 

I think there are only two solutions to these problems, neither of which the university will adopt.  First, I would get rid of the both the football and men’s basketball teams. They use up a disproportionate amount of funds with very little return. The football games are sparsely attended; they have not had a winning season in the 17 years I’ve been at URI. Supposedly, the alumni are keen on them but it isn’t reflected in their attendance at the games. Moreover, I do not think that there has ever been a URI football player who made it into the NFL.

Basketball is a grayer area because it occasionally has a winning season and some of them make it into the NBA. But in addition to a heavy practice schedule, they travel a lot, missing many classes.  Furthermore, it is offensive that the basketball coach makes more than the president of the university, and may make more than the governor. I do not know what possible justification there can be for that, particularly in a time of economic collapse. 

The other solution is one that cannot be taken unilaterally; it is one that the collegiate athletic associations would have to enact.  First of all, one must recognize that basketball and football are primarily parts of the fund-raising function of the university. Football and basketball players should be eligible to play to play college sports for four years; if they do not make it onto the professional teams, they should then be given a full college scholarship for four years. Essentially, playing their hearts out for four years should earn them the chance to pursue the studies towards careers that are their second choice. An exception could be made so that those students demonstrating clear academic promise and the desire to play and study concurrently could choose to do so. Adopting this program would show a real commitment to assuring that they emerge not only with a degree but with an education.

Postscript: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin has done a wide variety of jobs since his graduation, including becoming a National Urban Fellow in 2008. Lately he is the "sports guy" for The Takeway on National Public Radio.  The last I heard, Tyson Wheeler was playing basketball professionally in Europe.