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At Cal Berkeley, challenging stereotypes of NCAA athletes as students

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At Penn State, they used to brag about the “Grand Experiment,” a phrase that managed to patronize pretty much everyone, as if they were the only ones serious about academics, and read Plutarch while their opponents made crooked marks in spellers. It turns out the experiment consisted of Joe Paterno telling cops to lay off his guys. Meantime, out west at Cal Berkeley, a real experiment was underway, one that hardly anyone noticed, but one that could rescue college athletics.

The problem with the NCAA rulebook is that it’s based on a low opinion of athletes. It assumes most of them are slugs, and that the NCAA must “ensure their academic commitment” with hundreds of paternalistic rules — many of which were championed by former Penn State president Graham Spanier, an incorrigible NCAA grandee. Think about how insulting that is. We don’t question the “academic commitment” of general students. If they get to college, we assume they’re fairly committed.

At Cal, an education-sociology professor named Herbert D. Simons saw the flaw in the NCAA’s thinking. Simons did research that showed athletes were stigmatized as inferior and unmotivated and that just 15 percent of them felt positively perceived on their campuses. What’s more, in a series of papers such as “Non-Cognitive Predictors of Student Athletes Academic Performance,” Simons found that the stereotyping affected their classroom performance — as did the unpaid 40-hour workweek they put in, and the irreconcilable tension between their practice and class loads. Coaches and professors alike collaborated in making athletes feel incapable. They ended up “simply majoring in eligibility,” after being convinced the more substantial majors were too hard to pursue.

Simons decided to attack the issue on his own campus by establishing something called the Athletes Academic Achievement Program. He set out to prove athletes could be high achievers in the classroom — not by prodding them with penalties, but by speaking to their ambitions.

Simons strolled the sidelines at varsity practices and got to know some of the players. He coaxed them into his program by telling them scholarly study wasn’t so different from training. He offered them master’s credit for studying the role of sport in society. He recruited grad students to tutor them and help them manage their time.

Simons arguably had better ideas about how to fix the problems in college athletics than all the schoolmarmish reformers, soreheads, Robespierres and vigilantes put together. Unfortunately, he died of lymphoma in 2009, but he left behind a line of athletes who got advanced degrees. One of them was Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science and master’s in education. Another was Tony Smith, captain of the 1992 football team, who got an undergrad degree in English literature and a doctorate in education. Know where Smith is now? He’s the superintendent of Oakland schools.

Simons treated his proteges as scholars while other professors treated them as deadbeats. Smith still vividly remembers being insulted by the teacher of a Chaucer class. “Perhaps you’re not just a dumb jock and there’s more here than meets the eye,” the professor scrawled on a paper. Smith, furious, showed it to one of his football coaches and said, “This is what we face every day.” The coach shrugged and replied, “Just make it through.” When Smith complained to another professor that he was being unfairly stereotyped, the reply was, “What do you expect us to think?”

One problem, Smith realized, was his appearance. He was a starting offensive lineman who weighed 295 pounds. He wore football sweats to classes. He and his teammates tended to sit in the back rows, because it was hard for them to wedge their big bodies into the more crowded front rows. Other students interpreted that as lazy and unengaged. “Sitting sideways, taking up seats, it looks like you’re just lounging,” he says. The kids would sneer at them and accuse them of taking siestas, saying, “You guys are just lying in back, sleeping.”

“We don’t fit in the front,” Smith tried to explain.

At least he had it easier than his black teammates, he realized. “I’m a big white guy, able to speak directly to power, and I felt pretty confident in that environment,” he said. “Yet at every turn my identity was challenged.”

He added: “An ongoing piece of this — and a lot of people don’t want to have this conversation — is that there are people in positions of power on campuses who are not at ease with these people who are so embodied, or so popular, and they want to say, ‘You don’t know what I know.’ Then you layer on racism, large African American men in positions of power on campus. A lot of racial politics plays out, and so they make it about the inadequacies of young black men instead of about the structural inequities.”

Cal’s Athlete Academic Achievement curriculum has evolved into a permanent master’s program called Cultural Studies of Sport in Education. It looks for solutions to the conflicts between sports and academics through original research. It was Simon’s hope that some of his athlete-students might even see the field as a tool for social justice, and become teachers. Smith, for one, took the bait.

“There is huge leadership potential, to strengthen the educational system,” he said. “It’s about finding ways to strengthen the outcomes. It’s not just about adding some compensation for a few kids after they’ve played some games.”

By comparison, NCAA reforms don’t amount to much. Rule changes that give players a pittance of a stipend, or that force-march players into easy majors by increasing the difficulty of staying eligible, hardly solve anything. All they do is denigrate athletes in a backhanded way, and compound their problems.

If NCAA leaders are serious about change, they should try to close the discrepancy between athletes’ athletic ambitions and their academic ones, as opposed to just wallpapering over it with reputation or superficial “reforms.” That would be a real Grand Experiment.

© The Washington Post Company