Sunday, October 21, 2007


A mediocre 1-4 Stanford football team, a 41 point underdog, on October 6, 2007 upset the Number 2 ranked University of Southern California Trojans – the latest in a season of upsets initiated with Appalachian State’s stunning 34-32 victory over Michigan.

My interest was piqued by a Los Angeles Times column on Tuesday, October 9, 2007 by the sportswriter Kurt Streeter. His focus was on the high intelligence of the Stanford players. Stanford is one of the few universities, which apparently does not cut an admissions break for athletes. Indeed, the athletic department cannot offer a student until after the athlete receives an acceptance from the admissions office.

The three measures of an institution’s commitment to its student athletes is to look at the admissions standards for athletes, the course work measured by majors, and the graduation rate for the athletes.

The USC quarterback threw four interceptions. The Stanford players intercepting the passes were two high school National Honor Society members, a high school valedictorian, and an academic all-state nominee in high school. All the members of the offensive line were on a high school honor roll. The reality is that very few high quality high school football players will be academically eligible to play for Stanford. 15 of the current players are engineering majors.

We often use the hackneyed phrase “student athletes,” but at Stanford they are “scholar athletes.”

USC has become a great academic institution in recent years with highly selective admissions standards. U.S. News & World Reports ranks it as the 27th best university in America compared to Stanford’s number 4 rating. USC has long since lost the nickname as “The University of Second Choice.” Yet USC does not adhere to its high admissions standards when it comes to football players. It recognizes that football is an integral part of USC’s heritage, just as basketball is to cross town rival UCLA.

We can do a comparison though of Stanford’s players to those of USC and Michigan, a prestigious public university with high admissions standards. A look at the media guides for the football teams at USC and Michigan highlights the high academic standards of Stanford.

USC’s media guide does not include the majors of the incoming freshmen players as well as an additional 23 of the returning students. Of the remaining students, 23 are majoring in Sociology, 6 in Pubic Policy, Management and Planning, 2 each in History and Business Administration, and one each in American Studies, Economics, International Relations, and Political Science.

Both Stanford and Michigan have two of the nation’s most prestigious business and engineering schools. As might be expected, many of Michigan’s football graduates have become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and prominent businessmen. Not necessarily though from the current team. Of the 77 player bios in this year’s media guide, 54 are in the School of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA). 31 of these are majoring in General Studies and 14 are undeclared, which leaves nine LSA majors in American Studies, Economics, English, History, Psychology, and Sociology. Nineteen are in the School of Kinesiology, but 15 of these are undeclared. Only two team members are in the Ross School of Business and only one is engineering major. One player has no major listed.

Even with majors like these, some institutions resort to suspect efforts to maintain academic eligiblity. Thus, Minnesota (basketball), Auburn (grade changes in the Sociology Department), and Florida State (the extent of which is still unknown) have had academic scandals. The professors in charge of these academic support programs, and the tutors and TA’s administering them, realize that their major purpose is to keep players academically eligible. These schools are probably not the only ones engaging in inappropriate activities, but they were caught. Several football players at USC were recently discovered to be taking suspect off-campus courses.

A related statistic is the graduation rates of athletic programs. The NCAA reports these critical rates. They provide a guide to an institution’s attitude to “student scholars.” The overall rate for 2006 was 55% - hardly an impressive figure. Notre Dame achieved a 95% graduation rate and Stanford a comparable 94% compared to 71% for Michigan and 55% for USC. Of the last two NCAA football champions, Florida had a highly respectable 80%, double Texas’ 40%. Stanford’s players, of course, realize most of them will not be playing on Sundays so they concentrate on their academic studies.

Most schools profess to want athletes to graduate, but the reality is that at most major football and basketball programs a high graduation, but low win rate will result in the coach being fired. Even Stanford fired Harbaugh's predecessor for failures on the field.

Let us also note in fairness that cheating is not unique to athletic programs. Students learn to cheat in high school and many continue in college with cheating and plagiarism scandals in regular academic programs, including those of the military academies. Even in law schools, honor committees often have to deal with blatant cases of plagiarism. When it occurs though in prominent athletic programs, it becomes national news.

An even more unfortunate, and perhaps all too common, example comes from Ohio State. A great frosh phenom running back, Maurice Clarett, led Ohio State to a national championship while attending few classes. He had enrolled in a number of independent research courses, never returned to school, and subsequently matriculated in the Ohio Penal System.

Stanford’s coach, Jim Harbaugh, was an All-American quarterback at Michigan so Wolverine fans should be elated with the Stanford victory which has caused some to forget the Appalachian State loss. Harbaugh though in a newspaper interview last May said this about his alma mater:

“Michigan is a good school and I got a good education there, but the athletic department has ways to get borderline guys in and, when they’re in, they steer them to courses in sports communications. They’re adulated when they’re playing, but when they get out, the people who adulated them won’t hire them.”

Don’t expect Harbaugh to be the next coach at Michigan.

A third school of high reputation and a storied football past is Notre Dame, second only to Michigan in both the number of football victories and winning percentage. Notre Dame has fallen on hard times recently. A major reason is that, like Stanford, the admissions office has imposed high standards on the football recruits. Notre Dame’s great alumnus, Paul Hornung, publicly suggested that the school relax its admissions standards. For example, only 2 Proposition 48 students have ever played for Notre Dame.

We know that a few years ago a Michigan wide receiver (I could mention names, but I won’t) became an All-American. He dreamed of playing for The Fighting Irish, but they wouldn’t admit him. More recently Michigan State had an All American running back (again, no names mentioned). He grew up in the state of Michigan yearning to play for the Maize and Blue. Instead, he became a Spartan because Michigan wouldn’t admit him.

The lesson though is that brawn won't always win out on the athletic field.

Our next blog will look at the all too-often unfortunate extra-curricular activities of some players.

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