Do colleges drop the ball with student-athletes?

Academicians worry that they are steered toward less-rigorous majors

On a witness stand in a federal courtroom in Chicago, Kain Colter discussed the dilemma he faced as he tried to carve the best path for academic and athletic success. The former Northwestern University quarterback wanted to choose a major that would best prepare him for medical school.

But he had football commitments and -- as has been presented in multiple media reports on Mr. Colter's role in helping his alma mater's football team to unionize -- the time he could spend on the playing field would have been compromised by the courses required for typical pre-med majors. He ended up choosing psychology.

Was it even a true choice? Mr. Colter acknowledged during a National Labor Relations Board hearing in February that an adviser told him not to take a chemistry class needed for pre-med majors because it would interfere with football. He said he would not have been offered admission to the university if not for athletics. Football, Mr. Colter said, was the reason that he was at Northwestern.

Declaring a major -- an important and often difficult decision for college students -- brings even more complications for college athletes. Over the past 30 years, academics and critics have questioned whether athletes are being forced into certain majors because of time restrictions due to their sports; whether many different athletes naturally choose the same majors at their schools; and even whether coaches or athletic departments steer athletes into certain majors.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviewed the declared majors for players on the Top 25 football and men's basketball teams, as ranked by The Associated Press, during the 2013-14 academic year. The review showed that 13 of the 22 top-ranked football teams that disclose majors and 16 of the 20 basketball teams that disclose majors have athletes clustered in areas of study.

A large number of football players at the University of Pittsburgh, which was not a Top 25 school but was included in the study for its geographic proximity, are enrolled in the administration of justice major. At Oregon, football players are bunched in a social science major, while there is a large percentage of history majors at UCLA. That fits the pattern for "clustering," a term that describes situations in which 25 percent or more of an athletic team are in the same major.

"We continue to see it growing year after year after year," said Amanda Paule-Koba, an associate professor of sport management at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., and Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent a memo to NCAA president Mark Emmert on May 20 seeking information about the NCAA's educational responsibilities. They brought up the topic of majors, asking Mr. Emmert what the NCAA is doing to ensure athletes aren't being placed in easy courses in order to maintain athletic eligibility.

On June 9, a lawsuit filed against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon and several other former athletes is scheduled to go to trial in California. They're seeking an injunction giving college athletes the right to sell their services, changing the NCAA's restrictive amateur model into a free market.

Part of the former athletes' legal strategy will focus on the big-business aspect of NCAA sports and its separation from academics.

Sonny Vaccaro, a Trafford native and former youth basketball maven who is aiding the plaintiffs, said the lawyers for Mr. O'Bannon will focus on the issue of majors in order to illustrate college sports' divorce from academia. They intend to show that athletes are too often directed into majors that lead to sports success for the university rather than educational development for the individual.

"It's not illegal, but it certainly doesn't stand when they put down 'student-athlete,' " Mr. Vaccaro said. "We're tearing down the term 'student-athlete.' "

Breakdown of majors

Teams typically disclose the majors that their athletes are pursuing in biographies that appear on schools' athletics websites and in team media guides. In pulling data for a review of majors, it turned out not every school publicized its majors -- including the national champion Florida State football team and the national champion University of Connecticut men's basketball team.

Most schools did not include academic information for underclassmen or transfers, as universities have different rules for when students are allowed -- or required -- to declare a major. Some teams had most of their players already enrolled in a major while others had smaller numbers.

An analysis of the 1,668 athletes whose majors were listed found:

• On the Pitt football team, 19 of its 51 players who had declared a major were enrolled in the administration of justice major. Another 14 majored in communications, meaning those two majors account for 64.7 of the declared majors on the Pitt football team.

• On the Baylor football team, 36 of its 79 players with declared majors -- or 45.6 percent -- enrolled in a general studies major program. The Vanderbilt football team had 23 of its 63 players with declared majors enrolled in a human and organizational development program. The agricultural leadership and development major at Texas A&M drew 20 of the school's 50 football players with declared majors.

PG graphic: Major distribution
(Click image for larger version)

• On the University of Cincinnati basketball team, seven of its eight players with declared majors were enrolled in a criminal justice major. The Saint Louis University basketball team had six of its 10 players with declared majors studying business administration.

Though Pitt's football team showed clusters, its basketball team was more evenly distributed -- though the team disclosed the majors of only three of its athletes.

Penn State, which like Pitt was included in the analysis for its geographic proximity, had no more than nine of its 55 football players with declared majors enrolled in any one major. Like Pitt, the basketball team listed the majors of only three of its athletes.

How clustering happens

The biggest problem with clustering, Ms. Paule-Koba said, is that it often forces college athletes to major in programs that do not match their career interests.

She conducted a survey of more than 600 college athletes at schools in the Big Ten Conference and the Mid-American Conference this year and found 29.9 percent did not have majors that matched their aspirations.

One athlete was studying psychology with the goal of becoming a physical therapist. Another was majoring in history and wanted to work in finance. Another was in health-care service administration with future aspirations to "go back to school and get a degree in a field I'm actually interested in," according to Ms. Paule-Koba's study.

Some clustering is student-led, said Gene Marsh, a professional and college sports attorney with Jackson Lewis in Birmingham, Ala., and former chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

College athletes and all students have more access to information about courses, professors and workloads than in the past, and many choose the path of least resistance, Mr. Marsh said. Athletes may be trying to ease the transition from high school to college. Some clustering is natural because athletes share interests and backgrounds.

"There clearly are some places where steering is a problem and there's no question about that," Mr. Marsh said. "But there is also a situation where certain majors are overrepresented because the kids are trying to survive -- they are trying to survive in a world where there are so many demands so it won't kill them."

At Clemson, where all 115 players on the football roster had listed majors, 28 football players -- 24 percent of the 2013 roster -- studied sociology. Sociology has been popular there for several years, dating back to the previous coaching regime.

Jock McKissic, a defensive tackle who played his last season in 2008, graduated with a degree in sociology and communications. He said he arrived on campus considering business management but was turned off by the math requirements. Sociology appealed to him because of its general nature and the welcoming faculty. He noticed that after he and a couple of other teammates declared sociology as their major, other teammates in the ensuing classes followed.

"A lot of guys don't really know what they want to do in college once they get to college," Mr. McKissic said. "So it's kind of like, if you do something general, there will be more opportunities."

The time-consuming workload of football also influenced players at Clemson. Mr. McKissic said he had never heard about coaches there directing players into majors but said the sport's demanding nature and schedule factored into major selection because certain areas of study required afternoon or evening labs.

He recalled that a walk-on player who likely would have contributed to the team quit as an upperclassman because engineering labs conflicted with football. Another player who studied engineering was allowed to miss part of a Thursday practice to attend class.

Mr. McKissic works now as an actor, a field that does not necessarily require a sociology degree. In that, his experience is similar to most college graduates, only 27 percent of whom work in a field directly related to their major, according to 2013 research from the Federal Reserve of New York.

But some clustering is the result of steering from coaches and academic advisers who need to keep athletes academically eligible to compete by meeting school and NCAA GPA requirements and adequate progress toward a degree.

"There's so much pressure on coaches to win, and part of those reasons the coaches have to win is through their student athletes," said Robin Hardin, an associate professor in the sport management program at the University of Tennessee. "Those student athletes have to stay eligible. It puts a lot of pressure on the academic counselors."

Billy Hawkins, an associate professor in the University of Georgia's kinesiology department, said clusters tend to be around majors that don't involve significant GPA or course hour requirements.

A popular major for athletes does not always equate to a less rigorous major. It may mean there are more professors willing to work with athletes' travel and practice schedules.

"Academic counselors know where to put athletes," Mr. Hardin said. "They know professors that are athlete-friendly."

NCAA influence

Reform measures have only increased clustering, Ms. Paule-Koba said. Since 2004, the NCAA has punished schools that do not show an adequate Academic Progress Rate, a measurement that scores teams by their ability to retain and graduate athletes.

The NCAA also introduced a progress-toward-degree rule -- known as the 40-60-80 rule -- in 2003 that requires athletes to have 40 percent of their degree completed by the end of their fourth semester, 60 percent completed by the end of their sixth semester and 80 percent completed by the end of their eighth semester.

The rules were instituted to address low graduation rates, Mr. Marsh said. Some athletes were taking random classes to stay eligible without making progress toward graduating.

"What's the alternative? The alternative is worse," he said. "A body of people who are floundering around."

The NCAA says its internal research indicates academic clustering has not increased since these rules were adopted in Division I programs.

"Often, the most popular degrees for the student body on a campus are the most popular for student-athletes," NCAA spokeswoman Michelle Hosick said in an email.

She cited a survey the NCAA conducted in 2010 that revealed fewer than 5 percent of all college athletes would change their major or classes if given a choice and 87 percent would choose the same major if they were not in a sport.

That same study indicated 32 percent of Division I-A football players and 24 percent of Division I men's basketball players felt participation in athletics prevented them from taking the major they really wanted.

In a conference call last month after the release of the latest academic progress rate scores, Mr. Emmert defended the APR. Asked whether the NCAA could do anything to ensure athletes were receiving credible educations, he said the organization could only promote broad goals.

"Whether or not an individual school is providing the kind of quality education or the rigor you need to be a successful graduate has to be something the university itself pays attention to," Mr. Emmert said.

Ideas for reform

Mr. Hardin, the Tennessee professor, said the NCAA can do more to ensure college athletes are getting the most out of their scholarships. The NCAA should consider revising its rules so that college athletes have six years to finish their degrees while still maintaining four years of athletic eligibility. Currently, athletes have five years to graduate.

With more time to get a diploma, athletes and advisers might not feel so much pressure to find the easiest possible route to commencement.

"Financially, schools would have to pay their tuition," Mr. Hardin said. "But if you can pay a coach $5 million a year, you can spring for an extra year of tuition."

F. Michelle Richardson, an assistant professor of sports management at The Citadel and a former academic advising coordinator for athletes at University of California at Berkeley, said the NCAA should fill its ranks with more academicians -- former faculty, not just former school administrators -- who can help put more emphasis on scholastics.

Since several schools no longer publish information on majors -- likely a result of recent scrutiny -- Ms. Paule-Koba said the NCAA should require disclosure.

The NCAA also might consider revising its progress-toward-degree and graduation requirements. Then, college athletes could more easily switch majors if their career interests change, and programs would be less inclined to funnel athletes into easy majors for the sake of avoiding academic sanctions.

"It's one thing to get a degree," Ms. Paule-Koba said. "It's another thing to be educated."

Mark Dent: Michael Sanserino: or 412-263-1969. Sam Werner:

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