Friday, February 09, 2007

NCAA Football or NFL Development League?

Recently, there has been an incredible buzz around the Clemson football community surrounding the sub-par recruiting class that they pulled in this year. Most recently, several internet stories leaked out about the workings of the Athletic Department's Academic Review Board which oversees all recruits and informs the coaching staff whether or not the Department will accept and admit them.

Many Clemson coaches have been more than frustrated at the handicaps that his Board puts on their ability to out-recruit their regional ACC and SEC rivals. They have also claimed that several players that the Board has turned away were actually distinctive victims of such things as academically rigorous private high schools, GPA ambiguity about JUCO/prep school incomers, and economically challenging social conditions. The Board has come under great criticism for not allowing the athletic teams, especially football, reach the goals of excellence that the university has insisted on achieving.

More interesting about this recent controversy has been the dialogue and conversation amongst larger fan groups, and how some of these issues relates to the interaction between the Davidson Athletic Department and its admission office.

Throughout the entire week, blogs, radio talk shows, and message boards have less than delicately phrased the question as such: Do we aim for academic mediocrity with the chance of keeping a handful of athletes above a 3.0 GPA, or do we stop being paranoid stuffy pricks and go for a National Championship?

For many fans of the program, they see such academic restraints as being totally irrelevant and ridiculous for a school with the size and national athletic notoriety of Clemson. They don't want to be compared to the "stuffy know-it-alls" from Duke and are insulted that the administration is apparently attempting to do such a thing.

This blog helped to break the story in a way that exhibited more deliberation and precision than most talk shows. He seems to understand the difference between discarding all academic integrity and locking our doors to all that knock. He notes the ways in which the University can still admit particular athletes that can help strengthen the school's top moneymaker, football, while not letting every single recruit into the school's student body.

However, as the article progresses, one can't help but ask the question of this writer and of all the affirmative comments to his page: are college sports really just the minor leagues? If Clemson has fans that are actually envious of Alabama's situation and hateful towards NCAA compliance officers, what is the point of keeping up the charade? The athletic department should just go ahead and pay the 80 players what they are worth and stop taking taxpayers money to be pretending to provide them with a "scholarship."

It is remarkable to me how far gone this entire situation has progressed while no one has stood up to say that perhaps it is a good thing to weed out student-athletes who would not try or succeed in the classroom. Perhaps academics isn't just the hidden treasure of snobby, white kids that go to Duke or Davidson. What would happen if we encouraged the NCAA's crackdown on schools like Alabama or UGA or USC? What if we actually supported Clemson's decision to weed out recruits and force the coaching staff to build their team off of a new form of student-athlete. All of these writers claim that big schools like Clemson will turn into the patsies of the Dukes of the world who just "go through the motions on Saturday." I feel insulted that it is implied that students who work hard in the classroom and are naturally smart can do no more on the athletic field than go through the motions.

I am not ignorant, however, of the fact that schools like Duke, Davidson, Harvard, etc. do not sport football powerhouses. That is because a successful football program requires large recruiting classes, oogles of money, and support. Smart schools cannot find 85 4.0 kids that can also run a 4.5 40. That is not because they aren't out there. It is merely a law of averages and probability. It has nothing to do with smart people being athletically untalented.

Which brings me to Davidson's case. The school is currently more swept up in external pressure on the Admissions office to provide the basketball program with a few breaks. They believe that the basketball program is one of the school's greatest PR assets and that it should use the program to generate interest, success and money. The Admissions department and the wider faculty at Davidson have been very suspectful at loosening boundaries for academic exception, largely because of the happenings at schools like Clemson and Alabama. They refuse to allow basketball recruits to announce their decisions outside of the normal admissions calendar and rarely provide any widespread PR support of Davidson athletics outside of its quaintness ("ooh, smart people try hard in the classroom and on the court").

I think that much can be learned from both of these instances, schools like Clemson should maintain the Academic Review Board while examining character and contextual profiles to find out whether a potential recruits' academic struggles emanate from a source outside of his control. Clemson fans, however, should make more conscious efforts to realize the true beauty of the student-athlete, instead of disregarding the ideal out of cynical spite and ignorance.

Davidson should continue to remember the remarkable nature of its student-athletes and be more receptive to their needs for success while at the school. Admissions should allow the smart, honorable basketball recruits to publicly announce early, and the administration should put its full support behind the institution that attracts more attention to Davidson than anything else: Men's basketball. The school's academic reputation and standards for every one of its students will not be compromised by allowing Coach McKillop and the AD a larger budget and by creating the media support and infrastructure necessary to carry a team continually into the national spotlight and the NCAA tournament.

College athletics do not have to be minor league sports. And even if they have become minor league sports, we don't have to accept that this was a far-gone conclusion. We also don't need to be making high school seniors into prospective businessmen. At least let them enjoy the game itself for just a little bit longer. Don't take away the fun from the kids. Not yet.

UPDATE: Here are several articles written in SC papers that are addressing this issue: Post and Courier and The State.

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