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Archive for Saturday, March 20, 1999

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March 20, 1999

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It's highly doubtful that any major university chancellor or president would volunteer that his or her school was engaged in practices designed to give athletes phony grades to keep them eligible.

In fact, when such situations are exposed, the chancellors or presidents usually express total shock, saying they had no idea such things were going on at the school and that they intend to launch an investigation to discover how serious the matter may be and how much it may have spread through the athletic department.

Likewise, coaches and athletic directors are quick to claim they had no role in the cheating scheme.

It's questionable whether these chancellors, presidents, athletic directors and coaches are as innocent or uninformed as they would like the public to believe.

Coaches certainly know the academic skills of the men and women they are recruiting. They know whether the young man who can dunk a basketball or throw a football also can speak intelligently. They know about his grades and courses in high school or the several junior colleges he may have attended. They should have a fairly good idea of the academic goals of their incoming students.

They know which recruits are borderline, which ones don't measure up to minimum requirements and which ones are likely to be reasonably good students.

When the borderline students start making grades far better than the ones they made in high school or junior college, it would seem this might prompt coaches to take a closer look at that student and check with his or her teachers or tutors to see how and why there has been such an improvement. In some cases, it may be that the student, with closer attention from a caring tutor, has blossomed in the classroom and caught the fever to be a better student.

Unfortunately, the name of the game at some schools seems to be to win in athletic competition regardless of what is required to do so. Some coaches at Kansas University, for example, know of athletes they would have liked to recruit for KU, but the grades of those students didn't meet minimum requirements. And yet, the same individual, who may also have been rejected at other schools, turns up at yet another school ready to compete against the Jayhawks. How could there have been such a dramatic turnaround in that athlete's academic performance?

Last week, a former University of Minnesota employee told how she had written more than 400 papers or assignments for Minnesota athletes. She said these were for at least 20 past and current basketball players. It was not known whether she did similar work for athletes in other sports.

The school's president said, "These are serious allegations" and added that the school has called in legal counsel. He emphasized that at this time they are merely "allegations."

Nevertheless, he directed that four players on this year's Minnesota team be benched. Surely the NCAA will investigate the matter, and the school may face severe penalties. The coach said he knew nothing about the situation, that he was shocked and that it was all "news to me." It is interesting to note that the woman who did the assignments and papers for the basketball papers wrote on subjects such as the menstrual cycle, women's gains in the workplace and eating disorders. Mighty strange topics for members of the men's basketball team to pursue. These topics were verified by materials the woman submitted to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which broke the story.

Another woman, the retired head of the school's academic counseling unit, said she was unaware of the fraud but warned athletic department administrators that the office manager was tutoring players in violation of department policy and was ignored.

It appears to be a very serious violation with some former players claiming assistant basketball coaches knew about the phony academic work and frequently joked about it. There also are reports of phony jobs for the athletes and payments to the players.

Something like this is a black mark for all collegiate athletic programs. There is every reason for those who question the importance given to college athletics to say the Minnesota situation exists, to some degree, at most universities. Athletics is big business, winning is important, and you can't win without superior men and women. Often, these "superior men and women" are not that skilled in the classroom, so ways need to be found to keep them eligible.

Could this happen at KU? The quick and easy answer is "sure." There is no way to be absolutely sure cheating does not take place.

However, there are several factors that should be considered. The KU tutoring program for all student athletes is controlled by a single office. There are no independent programs set up by individual sports, as is the case at Minnesota.

Secondly, former Chancellor Gene Budig, who set up the current tutoring program, along with Athletic Director Bob Frederick and current Chancellor Robert Hemenway, have made it clear they will not tolerate any phony activity in the tutoring program. Those who serve as tutors have the respect of the faculty, and faculty members are urged to report any activity that looks suspicious. Tutors are cautioned time and again against improper actions.

Lastly, although winning is important in the eyes of KU alumni, the alumni truly interested in the school have made it clear to university officials that they do not want KU to engage in any phony or fraudulent academic practices.

KU is trying its best to run a clean tutoring program. Paul Buskirk, head of the athletic department's student support services, with the full endorsement of Hemenway and Frederick, has designed a tutoring program that should be a model for other schools. Again, there is no way to guarantee there will never be any academic cheating, but Buskirk is making every effort to make the KU program as foolproof as possible.

With a judge recently saying academic eligibility requirements are illegal, there is likely to be even more phony academic practices at many schools. It is hoped KU will set an example of maintaining high standards in academics as well as personal behavior for those who represent the school and the state in athletic competition.

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