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Big Time College Athletics

On cnnsi, I saw an article summarizing a series of articles in the Seattle Times which paint a terrible picture of big time college athletics. One of the names and stories caught my attention because it mentioned that one of the players visited South Africa in 2001, as did I.

The article was about Anthony Kelley, a football player at University of Washington who visited South Africa in 2000 and 2001. UW has a program where students take a series of classes in several countries: South Africa, Cyprus and Northern Ireland, I believe. Around 2000, one of the students in this class fell in love with Cape Town and had his parents help him buy two houses in a nice neighborhood between down town and the University of Cape Town. When I visited in 2001, I stayed at one of his houses (actually, I stayed in both). Almost every one else in the house at the time was from University of Washington. Kelley and his family stayed downstairs and I had a room upstairs.

Almost every day, the girls from the article came to the house to meet with Kelley and his family. I was there doing basketball clinics and hanging out with friends. We did not interact much, but he did say he was trying to raise money to bring the girls to the USA to perform and raise awareness for these kids in South Africa. He seemed like a good dude.

After returning from South Africa in the spring of 2002, Kelley, along with his wife, began raising money to bring the African girls to Seattle.

The Kelleys hosted a ’70s party, a spaghetti dinner and an auction. Tonya’s goddaughter sold lemonade for 50 cents a cup.

The media picked up the story. The UW hailed Kelley as the ideal student-athlete. Rick Neuheisel donated $5,000. So did Bill Gates Sr.

The Ipintombi dancers, as the troupe would be called, arrived in Seattle in June. They performed at the Paramount Theatre, among other venues.

The article talks about Kelley using football to escape the gangs around his Los Angeles-area home despite borderline grades. Then, when he developed a reason to learn and an appreciation for learning and the opportunity he had, it cost him on the football field, where his commitment was questioned. I know a girl at a DIII college who quit basketball this season because she wanted to study abroad, and while the coach could not do anything to prohibit it, she certainly was not pleased with the decision and criticized the player.

This, of course, is the problem when we confuse the college environment with the minor leagues. Big time college sports act like professional leagues with the highly paid coaches, national television, alumni donations and more. As the article writes, academics are an afterthought in these programs:

The 2000 season was Winter’s third as an academic coordinator at the UW. She used to teach English in Ohio. Now she worked one on one and in groups with Kelley and other football players.

She’d meet them in the Conibear Shellhouse on Lake Washington, where the crew team launched its boats. As she listened and taught, she came to see the athletes as vulnerable and isolated from other students.

Demoralized, sometimes in tears, many flirted with failing grades. “The personal cost for so many of them was so very, very high,” she says. “They had a real struggle with personal failure. It would be repeatedly, on a daily basis, an inability to meet expectations.”

One player on the 2000 team left the UW barely able to read or write, Winter says. She would go through textbooks with him, looking at pictures, reading captions, trying to capture main ideas. For essays, he would dictate while she typed.

The Shellhouse became a safe haven for players, a place they could vent. Some players walked in and dropped their heads on their desks, exhausted. “They were scheduled from before the sun came up until 8 or 9 at night,” Winter says.

After the 2000 season, Winter quit. She saw only hype surrounding “special admits,” a misplaced belief they were rising above. “They are running a business at the expense of the kids,” she says. “I felt like I was feeding the business, rather than helping.”

The faculty athletics representative in 2000 was Robert Aronson, a law professor. Charged with protecting the educational welfare of student-athletes, he resigned the post in 2004 and wrote an 11-page letter telling why.

The “pressure to win” compromised academics and integrity, Aronson wrote. The athletic department pressured the admissions office to accept student-athletes who were unlikely to succeed in the classroom. Then, teams demanded too much of their players’ time, preventing them from growing as students.

I know a girl who transferred from a DI program because the coaches insisted she change to a less time consuming major. How can universities defend this attitude toward academics?

My business partner and I tell kids: Use Basketball. Don’t let basketball use you. I use basketball to see the world, make an impact, pursue my interests and more. Kelley learned the same lesson, as football gave him an opportunity he might never have had otherwise. Rather than end up as an Al Bundy-like ex-football player, his experience transformed his life and ultimately the lives of so many more. He is the example of the positive role a college scholarship can have. And, his coaching staff disapproved of his efforts, demanding a single-minded devotion to football.

It’s great to root for the alma mater and to cherish March Madness. But, college athletics is still about the education. Well, in today’s world it really isn’t, but it should be. I support the NBDL because I believe players with little to no interest in education should have a place to play and earn a living in an atmosphere that does not undermine the academic integrity of a university.

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