The same kind of special treatment that allowed a star player for Ohio State’s football team to pass a course despite walking out on the midterm, not showing up for the final and taking oral exams instead could be afforded a Notre Dame player if his professor chose to do so, a University official says.
“The faculty is the bottom line . . . it’s the teacher’s class. You can’t tell the teachers what or what not to do,” says Mary Ann Spence, assistant director and senior counselor in the office of Academic Services for Athletes, which employs a battery of counselors and student tutors to help Notre Dame athletes with their academic progress.
However, she says the University works to create an atmosphere where accommodations to athletes are not taken lightly.
Earlier this year a graduate teaching assistant at Ohio State told The New York Times that the Buckeyes’ freshman phenom running back of a year ago, Maurice Clarett, received extra assistance from a professor to pass a class. According to the paper, Clarett, who later scored the winning touchdown in last season’s national title game, had walked out of his African-American and African Studies 101 midterm without finishing it. He never took the written final, either. Instead, he was allowed to take two oral exams. Based on his performance on the exams the instructor decided he had fulfilled the requirements to pass the course.
The department chair at Ohio State told the newspaper the professors are allowed to make special arrangements of this type. Under NCAA guidelines, professors may not offer any breaks, benefits or assistance to athletes that they wouldn’t offer to regular students. However, faculty retain plenty of leeway to do what they think is necessary to help students learn.
Other reports in the Times said Ohio State’s athletic department tutors wrote papers and did homework for football players and that athletes cheated on tests and quizzes in class. The university was said to be investigating the allegations.
Whether any rules were broken at Ohio State, the accusations raise anew questions about how much study help or extra admissions consideration athletes should receive, and how colleges should balance their core educational missions against the benefits of competitive, high-profile and sometimes lucrative athletic programs.
The NCAA sets minimum requirements for athletes to be eligible for intercollegiate competition: Potential recruits must have earned at least a 2.5 GPA in 13 core courses in high school (14 courses, starting in 2005) and achieve either a minimum 820 SAT score or a 17 on the ACT. (Starting in 2005, a sliding scale takes effect; the higher the GPA, the lower the test scores can be.) Notre Dame requirements are stricter and include 16 college-prep courses.
By setting higher admissions standards, the University hopes to head off any problems with athletes not being able to handle their course loads.
Another way Notre Dame looks to avoid problems is through tutoring, which Spence’s office offers to athletes at no charge, as mandated by the NCAA. Some question the fairness of offering free tutoring to student athletes when the same is not available to regular students.
“The philosophy behind it,” explains Spence, “is that something like this must exist to help athletes balance. They’re spending so much time representing the university . . . it’s like a job.”
The NCAA limits athletes to four hours of practice per day while classes are in session, but that number doesn’t take into account unofficial meetings, other team functions and travel to and from competitions. There is no time limit at all on game days, which can involve pregame practices, team meals and meetings, in addition to the competition itself.
Facing such time demands, many athletes in big-time college programs need help. The question is how much help is too much.
Notre Dame students who tutor athletes work under the close observation of a network of monitors and advisers, and nearly all tutoring is done at the Coleman-Morse Center, as opposed to dorm rooms, apartments or other non-supervised locations, Spence said.
“Tutors writing papers . . . that’s your worst nightmare.”
In an incident uncovered as part of an investigation nearly four years ago, a football player was found to have paid a tutor to write a paper for him.
To prevent that from happening again, potential tutors watch a video, read a handbook and sign a contract that they will not tutor athletes with whom they have a pre-existing relationship, that they will remain professional, and that they will only help with, not do work for athletes.
Furthermore, Notre Dame is one of the few schools that limits the number of classes a student-athlete may miss because of athletic competition or travel. Students are allowed to miss no more than three class meetings in any given course during the regular season (postseason play is exempt from the limit). The ruling aims to minimize one of the greatest pitfalls of big-time college sports. The more class time student athletes miss, the farther behind they fall, and the greater the temptation becomes to use unethical means to catch up.
Despite all the safeguards in place, Spence acknowledges that problems like those alleged to have occurred at Ohio State could happen here.
“You simply can’t control all the people that play a part. But you do the best you can to create an atmosphere that says, ‘No, that isn’t acceptable.’”