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Are Minority Football Players Being Pushed Into Pointless Majors?

Paper raises “clustering” question, but critics dismiss it as too superficial

A talented football player heads to college with a dream to play professionally. He believes if he shows his best on the field, by the time he completes his NCAA eligibility, he will be drafted into the NFL. But the reality is that only 1.8 percent of college football players make it to the pros.

While the NCAA has put reforms in place to help ensure college athletes graduate and are as academically prepared for life as they are physically, two researchers question whether this goal is really being met, finding that college football players tend to take certain classes that do not benefit them in the long run. Meanwhile, other experts say the researchers’ work might not go far enough.

The NCAA uses a formula based on peer-group comparisons, called the Academic Progress Rate (APR), to measure academic success among scholarship student athletes.

“While the goal of the APR, to increase graduation rates of athletes, is admirable, the means utilized by schools to avoid loss of scholarship could prove to be dubious,” Jeffrey J. Fountain and Peter S. Finley wrote in “Academic Majors of Upperclassmen Football Players in the Atlantic Coast Conference: An Analysis of Academic Clustering Comparing White and Minority Players.”

“A couple of years ago, I just happened to be looking at the media guide for the University of Miami [football team] and noticed as I was going through it that every minority player I saw had liberal arts as his major,” says Fountain, an assistant professor of sports management at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

“Of the 23 majors in liberal arts at the University of Miami, all of them were minority. Not a single white player,” Fountain says. “Some of these athletes are either selecting or being pushed toward something that doesn’t really have any value.”

Fountain and Finley reviewed the media guides for the football teams of 11 of the 12 schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference (the 12th school, Duke University, does not publish the majors of its football players). The study considered only upperclassmen who have declared majors.

Clustering, the researchers maintain, occurs when 25 percent or more of an athletic team shares a single academic major. What they found is that minority players were clustered into specific academic programs at greater rates than white players. At six of the schools, 75 percent or more of the minority players had one of two majors that varied from social science to liberal arts or business management.

Fountain and Finley chose to study football rather than basketball because of the size of each team. A basketball team would have 13 to 15 players; therefore, just a couple of players could impact a percentage. But football teams in the ACC can have up to 85 scholarship players, about half of whom are upperclassmen.

“We’re not trying to say that a university is necessarily giving them a poor education. It’s more about — especially the ones that are in general education programs — we want further follow-up on why they’re doing it or if they are being forced,” Fountain says. “If you push them to liberal arts and then they don’t get drafted, they don’t play in the NFL … What happens to them? Do the universities actually care what happens to their athletes when they’re done? We raise questions like that.”

Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports in Orlando, acknowledges that clustering does occur but says it does not necessarily cast suspicion upon the universities.

“There are certainly reasons to be suspicious,” says Lapchick, who produces an annual report on graduation rates among football players. “You cannot really make a judgment until an institution and its overall dynamics are fully examined.”

“It’s worth taking a look at, but I wouldn’t make any conclusions about an individual school unless you know more about the specifics of that major,” he says.

Officials with three of the ACC schools contacted by Diverse say that, while clustering is possible, they do not necessarily see a problem on their respective campuses.

Dr. Charles Wellford, professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and chair of the University of Maryland’s athletic council, says he found Fountain and Finley’s approach to clustering incomplete.

“When you look at clustering on sports teams, you have to compare it to the campus and how majors cluster on campus,” Wellford says. The largest major at Maryland is criminology and criminal justice, and it ranks second among student-athletes.

Last year, Maryland’s athletic council, which reports to the university’s president on issues pertaining to student-athletes, reviewed every athletic team and compared the major selections with the overall campus distribution. Wellford says student-athletes did have a high number of kinesiology majors (the science of human movement), which, he adds, makes sense for people with an interest in sports.

Student-athletes were less represented than the general undergraduate population in majors such as engineering and biological science, adds Wellford. One reason for that, he says, may be that practice times often conflicted with lab times, making it very difficult for student-athletes to schedule such courses.

Dr. Jan Boxill, senior lecturer in philosophy, director of the Parr Center for Ethics, and academic adviser for the women’s basketball team, says the University of North Carolina also does not have a major such as general studies or liberal arts. There is some clustering in the communications major, which may generate from the public speaking classes that many athletic teams at UNC require the players to take, she says.

“Being at a competitive school as we are, (athletes) are always being interviewed,” Boxill notes. “The coaches and I want them to be able to stand in front of people they don’t know and be interviewed. That kind of leads the players to say, ‘I really like this stuff.’”

With many student-athletes realistic about their professional prospects, they look toward broadcasting as a way to stay connected to sports. Student-athletes also frequently major in exercise sports science, Boxill says.

Dr. Ferna L. Phillips, director of learning resources for student-athletes at Boston College, an ACC school, says clustering may occur but it would be because a major like communications tends to be popular with student-athletes, many of whom aspire to careers in broadcasting.

Boston College has a 92 percent graduation rate for football players, which far exceeds the national average.

Phillips says she finds that the student-athletes, both male and female, at her college are reflective of the general undergraduate student population.

As for majors like general studies, “There aren’t places like that to hide here,” Phillips says.

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