Doing the Knowledge

First off, apologies for the shitty posting record over the last few weeks. Transitional time, blah blah blah, yada yada yada, excuse excuse excuse. We’ll do our best to be better. At any rate, the two big announcements I talked about should go into effect within the next week.

This news story is fairly old by now, but you may have heard that Brook Lopez, Stanford forward and one half of the Lopez Twins, was declared academically ineligible and then received an indefinite suspension for allegedly missing classes and a practice. Having some inside knowledge of the situation, I know that this particular incident doesn’t need much analysis: Brook simply didn’t try hard enough to do what he needed to do to stay eligible. There’s no lack of institutional control – it’s all about effort.

Frankly, the most interesting part of his ineligibility is that it happened at Stanford. At the risk of sounding like an arrogant alumnus, admissions standards are so high for athletes that all players are supposed to be self-motivated and ready to navigate a school that doesn’t coddle its players as much as other schools tend to. (Wow, that definitely made me sound arrogant.) Brook stopped efforting, and his work suffered for it.

One way of looking at his laziness is to say that Brook Lopez is headed to the NBA at the end of the year and therefore didn’t need to try – if he wanted to get drafted – and that would be exactly right. But it’s also easy to use that piece of information to argue that NCAA players should be paid, and that’s where things get more complicated.

The argument goes something like this: Brook’s situation shows that NCAA players are primarily using college for sports and couldn’t care less about school. At the same time, the schools exploit these players for money, so why not let these young men get paid for their exploits.

Well, for starters, they do get paid, and it’s in the form of a scholarship. Granted, some players don’t use that academics, but I think it’s a mistake to say that the majority use college for nothing more than sports, girls, and drugs. The fact of the matter is that not that many athletes end up playing professionally. Even if they don’t get much out of their education, college still provides them with the connections that could very well guarantee jobs and respect for years.

However, that explanation doesn’t kill the argument that these athletes aren’t using college for the education. Some do, certainly, but no more than a handful of scholarship players could be said to play college athletics for something other than the athletics; on the face of it, they want to play. But if they’re using college for sports, why do we choose to think of athletic programs as schools instead of glorified versions of the IMG Academy? Granted, the schools make a ton of money off of these players, but I’m not sure the players don’t earn back their per capita contribution to that income when they move on.

Whether college athletes use their schools for athletic development or simply for future connections, it would be a gross mistake to say they’re not getting something out of school roughly commensurate to what they give to that school. Paying players may seem like a simple solution to the issue of academically-lazy athletes, but that’s only the case if we insist on pretending that they’re all at school for the education. Many of Brook Lopez’s teammates want to learn, yes, yet there’s also Brook Lopez. And the system already accounts for him in full.


rtmsf said...

Nice post Ty.
I suppose you have read this article with respect to how Stanford requires higher standards with respect to its athletes - http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/06/03/SPGRQQ6G8V1.DTL&hw=stanford&sn=001&sc=1000

I would agree that Lopez's repeated laziness is substantial evidence that he's got more than one eye on the L. And it raises the timeless question of how to balance a legitimate sports program with a serious academic environment.

The argument I always hear from the old-timers is that a kid should "stay in school to get an education," presumably based on the assumption that the kid is actually learning in an academic sense while he's there. What an unmotivated kid is learning in Sociology and Communications classes (even at Stanford) that will benefit him later in life, I'm not quite sure. Nevertheless, that's the basic argument and you point out clearly one of its biggest holes.

If the kid is simply there to party and bide his time until his eligibility expires, he's really only learning about the social aspects of college life - in other words, how to play the game of life (i.e., cultivating and manipulating connections to get and keep jobs). But what's wrong with that? Isn't there significant value in knowing how to play that game?

Hell, we both probably know some women who only went to college to get their MRS degree and some guys who were there simply to weasel their way into some startup of the university's alumni, and yet their existence at the U. isn't begrudged.

Where it gets tricky is when the benefit calculus must take into account the revenue that Brook Lopez and his colleagues are producing for the school, which you pointed out. No doubt it's substantial. But no doubt Lopez is also getting something out of it - even if much squishier than revenue.

It would be interesting to do some kind of longitudinal study of Stanford athletic grads (just as an example) over the last 20-30 yrs to see how they ultimately ended up. You could measure the value of the Stanford experience vs. that of the Stanford education and see where that left them. I'll be happy to help you get that started. :)

Sorry for the long post, as I've rambled, and I'm still not sure what I believe, but I like the discussion points. Keep it coming!

Ty Keenan said...

I think we already had a lot of this discussion on one of your posts a while ago (I should have linked it, so here it is for anyone who's interested http://rushthecourt.wordpress.com/2007/09/30/beer-circus-indeed/), but it's worth talking about in more detail.

I think the best argument against what we've discussed is that regular students get the connections, too, so why wouldn't we want athletes to get the full experience that includes academics? I can only say that they're getting an experience that I could never fathom by playing on a D1 team, and that has to be worth something. Plus, anyone who thinks a quality athlete isn't building up connections that I could never build is dreaming. And they're not paying for those connections, either.

As for what they actually learn in classes, well, anyone who thinks Stanford doesn't have a large number of its athletes go into soc and comm and all the supposed "easy" majors is insane. There are also easy classes to fill for general requirements, and a few of them are actually held in the AD building. But I also know student-athletes who get more out of their classes than non-athletes, so it's not as if they're just here for sports.

I guess my main point is this: yes, I wish all athletes were potential Rhodes scholars, but they're not, and we shouldn't pretend they can be. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great article for the New Yorker a few years ago about Harvard admissions and the creation of the elite image, and I think that same idea applies here. Like it or not, successful athletic programs boost a school's overall image (for christ's sake, look at USC!) and add to the overall undergrad experience. I don't see why it's so hard to recognize that. Do you think the administration feels dirty getting publicity from Tiger Woods even though he never graduated? Of course not. And my classes weren't any less interesting this week now that Brook's suspended, but my overall mood was worse.

bcf said...

It took me a bit of time to get to this post, but I'm glad I finally did. You touch on something I've been thinking about a lot lately, Ty, so let me present you with the potential solution I came up with and I'll be interested to see what you say.

Basically the problem is that you have the minor leagues of basketball and football attached to the university system. And somehow we expect the goals of people going to the minor leagues to be the same as those going to university. This is the biggest problem in my mind.

If you want to be an NBA or NFL athlete, there's no question the career path goes through Division I college. Sure, you could go play in Europe (for basketball), but that's not the way to get discovered. So you go to a university for a year or two, then jump into the draft.

But in that situation your goal is to further your athletic career, while the NCAA system pretends you're there for the education - so they penalize institutions that don't force their players to the academic side of things enough, and they penalize players for not paying enough attention to the academic side of things. But it's a complete sham. The fact is that the NCAA is working to maintain their monopoly on amateur athletics that rakes in billions of dollars a year.

Of course from the other side of things, there's always the claim that for the athletes that don't have a shot at the professional leagues college helps them. I don't completely buy this logic, but my proposed solution still takes this into account.

So how to fix it? It's actually just as simple as creating an actual minor leagues for the NBA and NFL, abolishing eligibility rules for the NCAA, but still maintaining college teams and athletic scholarships.

Athletes that want to pursue the professional athlete career path will go to the minor leagues out of high school. Should they fail and decide they want to pursue their education, they can go to college afterwards. Theoretically they'll still be good athletes (just not good enough for the NBA/NFL) and should be able to get a scholarship to play at the collegiate level while working on their degree.

Those that want to stay in the minor leagues or go play in Europe for their entire career, that's their choice. If they had gone to college they most likely would have done the same thing. Going to college for the minor leagues doesn't fix that.

If the NCAA got rid of the hypocrisy, they could actually field enjoyable, competitive teams made up of actual student athletes. Talented athletes that valued their education while they pursued a professional career could still accept scholarships right out of high school. If they wanted a free education they could take it immediately and still have the option of a professional athletic career open. But those that don't want to put on the act of being a student when they're just there for their athletic careers can go to the minor leagues.

Ty Keenan said...

It seems like you're proposing something similar to what baseball has in place in terms of drafting from both high school and college. That would probably work in terms of developing players for the pro league -- it seems to for Major League Baseball -- but I think it has a whole set of issues. First, the NCAA would never go for it, because, as you say, they're trying to maintain their monopoly on the product. College baseball is essentially irrelevant, and there's no way they'd give up the billions of dollars they make from basketball and football. If giant institutions like the NCAA were willing to give up money, I think your proposal makes sense, but that's just not the reality.

The other issue, which interest me more and which I tried to discuss in this article, is that players cannot easily be put into "academic" and "athletic" categories. The term "student-athlete" isn't entirely a crock of shit; a hell of a lot of people want to do both. Hell, even guys with prospects as gigantic as Kevin Durant and Greg Oden said they enjoyed what they learned in school, and OJ Mayo seems to be doing real work in his classes. Yes, these guys are at these schools to play basketball, but I really don't think it hurts that they learn something along the way, even if all they're learning is how to manage media exposure.

My point is this: given all that these people get out of the college experience (and for free, mind you), I don't think it's asking much of them to do 36 units per year in classes that are usually made easier for them. They might even learn something along the way that they can use when they're out of sports. The academically ineligible kids are outliers; I don't think it's worth rehauling the system just because they occasionally can't function within it.

Of course, this situation only looks like a problem because we insist on expecting these marginal admits to be miniature professors in the classroom. Why not make our expectations more realistic and accept their role in the university as something else entirely? If they sometimes transcend that role, then that's fantastic.

bcf said...

As to your comment about the NCAA accepting my idea - under that standard any discussion of the NCAA and reform would be completely irrelevant, since it's not like the NCAA has shown a penchant for reform even on the small stuff (like a BCS playoff system). I guess I'm talking on a more ideological level (perhaps with Congressional intervention based on the fact that it clearly violates anti-trust laws).

As to your other points, you're still reinforcing the problem that starts all of this - the fact that our society insists on sticking education into the athletic career path. If it's a particular brand of education (as you mention) that helps them with their athletic careers, then it should theoretically be included in whatever "minor league" corporate entity emerges to fill the need. Essentially athletics is a vocation, and therefore athletes should be going to vocational school, not a university.

If they're interested in pursuing a degree or just educational enlightenment, they can accept a scholarship to university. If they want to be ready for a career after sports, they can either accept the scholarship or wait until their career is over and then go to school. But why is a university the place for someone training to be a professional athlete?

If someone decides out of high school that they want to be a chef, so they go to some place like the Culinary Institute of America, why don't we moan and lament that they're not receiving an education as well? That's what the "minor leagues" would be - a training ground for athletes.

The problem I guess I have here is the limitation of choice which creates this problem. We're essentially forcing these athletes into a process that most of them would choose not to go through, and then decrying the fact that they don't succeed.

The "I don't think it's too much to ask..." argument is troubling - why not provide a choice to these athletes? Using my previous example, if we combined all culinary institutes with standard universities, and then forced student-chefs to take what is essentially a double curriculum, would we then say that "I don't think it's too much to ask that they spend a lot of their time studying something they're most likely not going to use in their careers"? That example seems absurd because we accept the fact that someone who wants to be a chef doesn't have to go to college, they can go directly to a culinary institute where they teach them how to be a chef (and even throw in business classes about running a restaurant if you choose to take them).

I think I keep repeating myself, so I'll just close with this: think about the reason why most kids go to college - to increase earning potential afterwards. There are few kids (certainly the minority) who would choose to go to college (let alone pay for it) if it wasn't about making money. If you told them they could make more money elsewhere and not have to go to classes, most would drop out. This is the way that student-athletes act, but because they actually have another way to make more money outside of college they can do what we all wish we could. So why do we insist they do what we never would, given the choice?

Ty Keenan said...

Now that you throw out the NCAA monopoly problem (which I think is sensible), I think we're arguing two different things: you for complete reform and me for the lack of a need for widespread change so long as we keep this system. If I got that right, then I can't really argue with what you say in terms of choice. I guess I'd just prefer that everyone go to college because it both brings along the person athletically and (potentially) academically. If we're talking about options, I think it opens up the most in the long term. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't give people that option in the first place, and that I can buy.

bcf said...

I guess we can wind down the debate then. I just get peeved that the mainstream media paints these issues in ways that make no sense - it's clearly colored by race and socio-economic status (the idea that athletes need to be "educated").

I also disagree with you on how much athletes actually get out of the university system (and have my own anecdotal evidence to back it up), but I guess that's a separate matter.

Congrats on joining FreeDarko, by the way. Look forward to reading you over there as well.

Ty Keenan said...

We certainly agree on what the mainstream media does with this issue. A debate about how much athletes get out the system would certainly be worthwhile, maybe I'll write a follow-up to this at some point so we can yell at each other again.

Thanks for the kind words on FD.