Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Plantation on the Plains?

To the uninitiated, college football comes in three seasons. The first, which everyone knows about, runs from roughly Labor Day to New Years and is when the games are played. Sane people with lives to live should only concern themselves with this one.

A sub-strata of adherents follow the second season, recruiting season, which really never ends although the February signing day is generally regarded as the point at which the cycle ends and commences. Although hardly a perfect correlation, recruiting success tends to lead to on-the-field success, so some attention to this area is justifiable although not the amount that has become the underpinning of the booming recruiting media business enjoyed by the likes of and

Then there’s the season we’re in now: The off-season, which is technically a non-season. No practices are allowed and whatever workouts are going on are informal, organized by the players. There’s some recruiting going on and, if there’s good news to be had during this season, there’s the source.

However, because it is also a time the post-teen jock mercenaries that represent each school are essentially left to their own devices, this is also the scandal season. Most of the incidents that result in suspensions and expulsions tend to occur in the dog days of summer, so the sub-sub-strata of fans that follows the sport during this time of year is listening out for bad news and hoping like hell they don’t hear any.

If you were following Auburn this summer, your hopes got dashed in a pretty emphatic way, in the form of a four-page expose on the cover of the New York Times’ July 14 edition. Quoting a long list of professors and players, the Times documented a system in which 18 players from the undefeated 2004 team, including first-round draft pick Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, were steered to earn 97 hours’ course credit from apparently bogus directed study sociology courses taught by Thomas Petee, the sociology department’s highest-ranking member. In one semester, Dr. Petee reportedly taught 152 independent study classes, the workload of 3.67 professors. By other professor’s accounts, Petee would have had to get by on less than 15 seconds’ sleep a day and possess the ability to stop time in order to carry this load.

Athletic overemphasis has beleaguered Auburn’s academics before, jeopardizing the school’s accreditation. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which placed Auburn on one- year probation in 2003, plans to speak with the university early next week. SACS is Auburn’s accrediting body and cleared the school in December 2005.

“I think it merits talking with them,” Jack Allen, vice president of the Commission on Colleges at SACS told the Birmingham News. “We’re perfectly willing to investigate these things when they are accreditation-related. Certainly, if the alegations are correct, then there is an academic problem.”

The Times article brims with unseemly nuggets, such as the presence in Petee’s office of a football autographed by Williams. (“To be honest with you, if they think that’s a problem, they need to investigate all the teachers at Auburn,” Williams told the Times.) As of this writing, similar balls are fetching nearly $300 on eBay. Two-thirds of the way into a semester, defensive end and junior college transfer Doug Langenfeld transferred into Petee’s class and managed to get a “B.” The Times reported the players received 81.1 percent A’s in the first semester of 2004-05, and 40.9 percent A’s after a colleague confronted Petee.

There’s much more and, if you’ve followed this post this far, you may as well indulge your inner Jerry Springer all the way by hitting the first link.

Some background: to get a handle on programs that were fast becoming football factories and restore the veneer that its members have at least a passing commitment to the “student” side of the term “student-athlete,” the NCAA devised the academic progress rate (APR) metric in 2003. Programs that fall below a certain number face penalties.

Auburn, as its coach Tommy Tuberville has happily pointed out to every recruit and sportswriter within yelling distance, has the fourth highest APR of all college football teams in Div 1 and Div 1-AA. Auburn trails only Stanford, the US Naval Academy and Boston College in this category and leads Duke, surely marking the first instance ever of Auburn finding its name in the same sentence as any of those programs.

Unlike those programs and unlike dozens of programs with even lower APRs, Auburn manages to graduate less than half its football players, which, sadly, is a bit closer to par for the course in the Southeastern Conference (exclusive of Vanderbilt, naturally).

At this point, anyone with 20 neurons working simultaneously should find himself reeling from quite a clangorous bit of cognitive dissonance: If Auburn’s players are making such excellent academic progress, why are so few progressing to the finish line? The NFL can’t possibly be drafting half of each of Auburn’s classes, so what happens? Alien abductions?

Let’s step back, take a deep breath and get some perspective. Yes, the Auburn football team is probably one of a hundred-odd NFL farm clubs masquerading as a collection of exceptionally talented student-athletes. If Auburn’s sociology department is, as one of its professors claim, “a dumping ground for athletes,” it was hardly the only sociology program in the country to attain such status.

My alma mater took the fall a few years ago when it surfaced that basketball players were taking a PE class taught by their assistant coach, Jim Harrick Jr. Aside from scaling what should have been a towering Chinese wall between academics and athletics, Harrick infamously administered tests that featured such brain-busters as “How many points are in a three-point basket?”

In its best Jerry “I have siiiiiiiiiiinnned” Falwell impersonation, the University of Georgia threw itself wailing and prostrate at the feet of the NCAA, cancelling the season for a team that likely would have reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament and vacating all of the wins it had earned up until that point. Georgia also sacrificed some scholarships, fired the coaching staff (an already scandal-plagued bunch from their prior employment and whom most Georgia fans readily admit should never have been hired), and probably would have donkey-punched itself in the nuts a dozen times had someone from the NCAA not stepped in and said, “Peace, child. Enough.”

Another SEC institution, the University of Tennessee, was exposed for having its athletes enrolled in classes in advanced chair-stacking and walking, for which attendance was not required and for which several players managed to get their failing grades (how on earth does a supposed athlete fail at walking?) changed at several times the frequency that non-athletes did. But, because no coach was involved in the classes, UT asserted “academic independence,” better known as a school’s right to maintain the academic rigors of Romper Room and thus suffered no consequences at the NCAA’s hands.

When we consider these cases, it’s important to consider the tortured position of the NCAA, which, in attempting to prosecute its members, is akin to the New York Stock Exchange attempting to prosecute corporate fraud. Both the NCAA and the NYSE have a financial interest in their members’ viability and thus a disincentive to cut anyone’s knees out. On the corporate side, that’s why we have the Securities and Exchange Commission and the US Treasury Department to play bad cop. On the college sports side, we have … uh, well, all we have is the NCAA, unless Congress isn’t already preoccupied with steroids in baseball.

Should the NCAA get involved with what’s going on in Auburn? Probably. Kyle sure thinks so. Certainly, the disparity between the school’s APR and its graduation rate demands a much closer look. Will it? Probably not. If there’s a way for the NCAA to conclude that the irregularities at Auburn fall strictly on the academic side, it will conclude that it has no jurisdiction.

And that’s hardly the optimal outcome if you’re an Auburn alum, for whom the bigger concern should be that of the SACS getting involved again. Because, if we agree there’s a problem and the NCAA says it’s not their problem, then whose problem is it? That would make it the SACS’ problem, although the NCAA’s involvement wouldn’t necessarily negate the SACS joining the fray anyway. Auburn losing its accreditation over this might seem comical to some Alabama fans, but it would be a major setback to the state, as Auburn, with 23,000 students, is clearly a flagship school for the state.