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Friday, March 06, 2015

Academics and Athletes

The Atlantic Coast Conference announced its All-Academic team this week in men's basketball. The standards for inclusion certainly sound impressive enough:
To be eligible for consideration, a student-athlete must have earned a 3.0 grade point average for the previous semester and maintained a 3.0 cumulative average during his academic career.
The ACC men's team includes 21 student-athletes and they are all identified in the press release. In a 15 team league, that means that each school should have placed 1.4 players on the unit if the academic talent is evenly distributed. Then again, talent is often concentrated on the best teams -- that certainly happens with the all-conference teams selected based on athletic performance on the court.

What caught my eye in this story was the unusual concentration of academic talent on one team. One-third of the team members, seven players, are on the University of Louisville roster: "Earning the honor for the Cardinals are Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell, Anton Gill, Mangok Mathiang, Chinanu Onuaku, Terry Rozier and Quentin Snider."

Is this a point of pride or concern? I've never had any of the named student athletes in class, so I know nothing about them and am not commenting about them in any way. In fact, in my years at Louisville, I've never had a basketball player in class. Moreover, coach Rick Pitino has occasionally praised the intelligence of some of these players. Maybe this is a genuine point of pride.

However, I've been a faculty member at Louisville since 1991. Over the years, I've heard the numbers and can confirm that the kind of grade inflation mentioned in this local report is endemic. Look at slide 19 of this PowerPoint for some real data. The graphic demonstrates that about 60% of students at the university had a GPA of 3.0 or higher in the 2011-2012 academic year. In contrast, only about 40% had a GPA of less than 3.0. A couple of thousand students had a 0 to 1.24 GPA, which realistically means they flunked out of school and would not bring the overall GPA down in the long haul. Generally, the best students stay in school and graduate.

If the average student at an institution has a GPA over 3.0, then is the ACC really recognizing academic achievement?

Interestingly, five of the seven named players are listed as Communications majors, one is Sports Administration, and the other is undeclared.

Does this mean anything? I don't know, but if I were a reporter, I can think of one topic I'd like to discuss with athletic administrators. Actually, it's not even a new concern.

I realize questions about distance education might lead to completely reasonable answers. After all, I was a double major in college and Communication Studies was one of them. More than 30 years ago, prior to the onset of distance education, several of my classes were populated by top-level debaters and athletes, including Lynette Woodard and Bucky Scribner. Debaters, who were sent out to speak weekend after weekend, were interested in communication for obvious reasons. I suspect the athletes had good reasons for their choice as well.

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