I confess to mixed feelings on the subject of big-time college athletes and academic standards. But my reaction to Jan Kemp's victory against her employers and tormentors at the University of Georgia is an unalloyed: Fantastic!
Kemp, erstwhile English coordinator of Georgia's remedial-developmental studies program, was fired when she refused to back down from her insistence that nine athletes in her charge be given the grade they manifestly earned -- an F. She sued the two professors who fired her. (Under Georgia law, the university itself couldn't be sued.) Last week, a U.S. District Court jury in Atlanta awarded her $2.5 million in damages.
I hope she collects every dime.
This was no anti-athletic egghead fighting to de-emphasize athletics. Her 4.0 undergraduate average, Phi Beta Kappa membership and magna cum laude degree notwithstanding, Kemp was a fierce devotee of Georgia Bulldogs football, missing not a single home game in 15 years. She loved "them Dawgs." But she also loved learning, honest academic exertion, integrity and a few other things apparently in short supply on the campus in (wonderful poetry here) Athens.
She was demoted, harassed, slandered and finally fired. Two fellow teachers who supported her also lost their jobs. One flunked football player, promised readmittance if he agreed to write a letter criticizing her academic competency, did so with a vengeance. The letter accused Kemp, wife of a high-school teacher and mother of two preschoolers, of everything from participating in homosexual parties to frequent references to taking off her clothes.
Well, he didn't actually write the letter, Kemp says. "He dictated it to a secretary in the office of academic affairs, and she wrote it."
She laughed about that to Washington Post reporter Art Harris. She wasn't laughing a few years earlier when, jobless, despondent and unable to cope with her new motherhood, she attempted suicide. "I couldn't even do the laundry," she told Harris. "I thought I was doing the family a favor."
I know that student athletes are supposed to be students first. Still I have some misgivings about the new National Collegiate Athletic Association rule requiring freshmen to have a combined Scholastic Aptitude Test score of 700 (out of a possible 1600). That's not much of a standard, I admit, but a lot of athletes who wind up doing reasonably well in school -- and in life -- fall short of it.
I think, too, that we stop short in our analysis of major college athletics and academically marginal students. We are given to comparing the student athlete who either does not graduate or who graduates without much of an education, with what he might have been if he had been an academically successful student. Clearly the "dumb jock" is the worse off. But isn't it reasonable to compare him as well with the nonathlete of similar academic gifts? Is the athlete who gets "used" by a university until his eligibility runs out worse off than the guy who, lacking athletic as well as academic ability, never got to college at all? Obviously the athletes don't think so.
Part of the reason, of course, is that a ridiculously large number of them hope to get a shot at the big money of professional sports. (One observer has calculated the odds of getting a pro contract as roughly equal to the chances of becoming a neurosurgeon.)
Still, if their sport is football or basketball, college athletics is about their only shot at the pros, there being no basketball or football counterpart of the minor leagues. In other words, what is the young man to do who knows he is no scholar but who thinks he might be a prospective player in the NBA or the NFL?
The Georgia program, on paper, strikes me as a reasonable compromise. In exchange for their athletic contributions, academically marginal athletes are promised intensive remedial help with their studies. The understanding is that they must pass the remedial work before being graduated into regular classes.
In practice, it didn't work that way. At least not until Jan Kemp. It isn't that she insisted on honors work, but she did insist on work, she said, explaining why she refused to award unearned grades. "I felt no athlete would hit a lick ever again," she said.
Things will be different at Georgia now, and maybe at a lot of other schools as well, thanks to Jan Kemp.