I never have recurring dreams—with one exception. In it, I dream that I’m in college. It’s the end of the term. Finals are next week.
I’m asleep in my dream. I wake up in a cold sweat. I suddenly remember I have a class that I’ve attended only once all semester. And then I wake up for real in an actual cold-sweat panic, until I realize that it was only a dream.
Others have told me they’ve had similar scary visions. But only last week did I learn of someone who actually lived out a comparable scenario, thanks to an in-depth report by TheNew York Times.
Doug Langenfeld is an Arena League Football player who recently starred at Auburn. In 2004, halfway into his final fall semester in the Loveliest Village on the Plains, Langenfeld made a frightening discovery. For eight weeks, he’d been attending the wrong class without realizing it—a class for which he was not officially enrolled and could not receive credit.
This was not good.
In a swivet, Langenfeld approached a professor about adding a class. Too late in the year, he was told. Now it was really not good. Without three more hours of course credit, Langenfeld would be ineligible to play in Auburn’s bowl game, for a shot at a national championship.
He approached his academic counselor in the athletic department and begged him to find a class he could add. He’d take anything. Not a problem, the counselor told him. Had he heard about the “one-assignment” sociology class that was popular among other Auburn student-athletes?
For Langenfeld, the Directed Readings course was a football godsend. With just five or six weeks left in the semester, Professor Thomas Petee agreed to work with him on a program of individual study. Langenfeld says he met several times with Dr. Petee. He had to read one book (the title escapes him now) and write one 10-page paper. Not only did Langenfeld get his credits and play against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, he was one of less than 17 percent of the 120 students who took the course with this professor to earn a B. All but 2 percent of the rest earned A’s.
Eighteen members of Auburn’s football team studied individually in this way with Professor Petee, who says he managed his Herculean workload mostly through emails to his pupils. The footballers accumulated an average GPA of 3.31 in the Directed Readings courses, compared to 2.14 in their other courses at Auburn that year.
Ever since Gordon Gee and his reform-minded friends scolded the NCAA into revamping the rules governing athletes and academics, schools have had to work harder and be more creative. For example, players can no longer load up on courses like Basketweaving, AIDS Awareness, Walking 101 and Jim Harrick Jr.’s Fundamentals of Basketball (whose final exam asked students to enumerate, among other things, how many halves are in a basketball game and how many points a three-point shot is worth). Now, student-athletes have to take mostly real courses and make annual progress toward a degree. If an insufficient number of them make the grade, then the football program starts losing scholarships.
That’s what makes courses like Directed Readings in Sociology so alluring. The 18 players in Professor Petee’s class—including Cadillac Williams, who signed a football for the good doctor—contributed to the team in more ways than one. With their A’s and B’s, they helped raise Auburn’s official APR (Academic Progress Rate).
In fact, for the past two years (the only ones for which the NCAA has data under the new system), Auburn has scored a 981 on the APR. That puts it first in the SEC and, more amazingly, fourth among all Division I-A football programs, ahead of Duke and narrowly trailing only Stanford, the Naval Academy and Boston College.
According to the NCAA’s principal research scientist, cited by the Times, Auburn’s high score should translate into a graduation rate of 76 percent for players on the 2003 and 2004 football teams. Auburn’s actual graduation rate? Only 48 percent. (By comparison, Vanderbilt, which led the SEC, graduated 88 percent of its players during those years, followed by Mississippi State with 60 percent. Tennessee (with 38 percent), Kentucky and Arkansas claimed the hind teats.)
Given such a disparity between the APR and the graduation rate, NCAA officials might visit Auburn to examine just how the numbers were crunched. Maybe they’ll find that some Enron accountants were keeping the books. Maybe they’ll also want to investigate whether Professor Petee was on the faculty at Florida and Ole Miss as well. Both of those football programs outscored Vandy on the APR, yet had graduation rates below Auburn’s.
None of this should be surprising to anyone with experience involving campaign finance or IRS audits. In fact, it was almost as predictable as the sunrise. Everyone but the would-be reformers seems to understand that the NCAA is engaged in an endless game of whack-a-mole. Close one loophole and the people in the football business will just find another one. Even though whistleblowers in Auburn’s Sociology Department have helped derail Professor Petee’s gravy train—which certainly did not account for the football program’s sterling APR all by itself—does anyone doubt that there will be no scarcity of other shortcuts for players who need respectable grades?
You can understand why some people in the drug enforcement business begin to think legalizing drugs is a good idea. As long as the demand is strong, the supply will follow.
Among alums and fans, the demand for winning football is stronger than heroin. Until alums place a higher priority on academic integrity than on winning games, reform efforts won’t be any more successful than drug interdiction at the border. And fan priorities show no sign of changing.
So maybe it’s time to legalize it all. Instead of trying to add new rules, perhaps the schools that are sticklers for academics should quit the NCAA and give up all the money that goes with it. The schools that want big-time football businesses should be free to admit anyone they choose, pay them what they choose and let classes be optional.
In this case, bagging the rules might be the most honest approach of all.