Archive for Friday, June 15, 2012

Athletes’ tendencies to ‘cluster’ in certain academic fields problematic, some say

June 15, 2012


The Journal-World looked at the majors of Big 12 basketball players, and those of teams that made the Sweet Sixteen in 2012. Several schools had an inordinate number of players majoring in areas that few other students do. At Texas A&M, for example, nearly 36 percent of basketball players study agricultural leadership and development, compared to fewer than 1 percent of all students.

The Journal-World looked at the majors of Big 12 basketball players, and those of teams that made the Sweet Sixteen in 2012. Several schools had an inordinate number of players majoring in areas that few other students do. At Texas A&M, for example, nearly 36 percent of basketball players study agricultural leadership and development, compared to fewer than 1 percent of all students.

The Journal-World analyzed KU athletes' majors, as described on the KU athletics website. While just 1 percent of KU students are declared African and African American studies majors, four players from last season's men's basketball team - 36 percent of the team - majored in that study area. The numbers in this graphic only include players who indicated a major on the KU Athletics Department website rosters. Players who did not indicate a major were excluded.

The Journal-World analyzed KU athletes' majors, as described on the KU athletics website. While just 1 percent of KU students are declared African and African American studies majors, four players from last season's men's basketball team - 36 percent of the team - majored in that study area. The numbers in this graphic only include players who indicated a major on the KU Athletics Department website rosters. Players who did not indicate a major were excluded.

The “player,” highly recruited from Miami or New York or Philadelphia, shows up on campus in Norman or Stillwater or Lawrence.

He’s ready to catch touchdown passes or throw down hammer dunks to help his team in the competitive world of college athletics in the Big 12 Conference.

A couple of years on campus, and the player expects to leave some eligibility on the table and take his talents to the NFL or NBA.

But first, there’s that college part. Surrounded by a team of tutors and advisers, the player must go to classes and maintain a certain GPA.

Not sure what to major in, player? No problem.

Maybe you should think about communications or criminal justice or African-American studies, he’s told.

See, many of his fellow players major in that. You can all take classes together. And the best part? Professor Johnson or Smith understands the pressures of big-time college athletics. They’ll take care of you. They’re big fans of the team.

You can even get an independent study course with that favorite professor. Several of the players can take it together.

Play on, player.


The situation described above is a worst-case scenario of academic major “clustering,” which happens when a large percentage of players on a sports team share a major.

An in-depth Journal-World study of Big 12 athletics, including the incoming and outgoing teams this year, found widespread clustering — defined by researchers as 25 percent of a team sharing one major — in men’s basketball and football programs.

Some of the more significant cases of clustering found in the study include:

  • Baylor football team: 51 percent of players major in general studies, compared with just 1 percent of all other undergraduates. According to Baylor's website, the program is designed for the "general career areas of health, fitness, recreation, and sports."
  • Texas A&M: 37 percent of the men’s basketball players and football players major in agricultural leadership and development, compared with less than 1 percent of nonathletes.
  • Iowa State: Seven of 11 men’s basketball players majored in liberal studies.

The study also examined the majors of all Kansas University athletics teams. In the last season, student athletes’ majors appear fairly distributed at KU.

But a closer look at the KU men’s basketball team through the years tells a different story.

Between 2004 and 2012, 43 players who’ve indicated a major in media guides have passed through the KU men’s program. Of those, 61 percent have majored in communications, African and African-American studies, or American studies.

Think of the best players to come through Lawrence over the past few years, and there’s a good chance they majored in one of those three.

Mario Chalmers, TyShawn Taylor, Sherron Collins? All African and African-American studies majors.

Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich, Julian Wright? Communications majors.

Thomas Robinson and the Morris twins? American studies.

Of the 17 KU players since 2004 who have been drafted or signed by an NBA team, 13 have majored in those same three majors.

Those majors were disproportionately high among basketball players compared with the total undergraduate student body, as well as among KU student athletes.

Such clustering, though, is not against any NCAA regulations, and it’s not even clear whether, or how, the NCAA monitors clustering.

So what’s the problem?

Clustering opens the door for potential problems, not only in terms of academic misconduct, but also for players who may never reach professional ranks, says Peter Finley, a professor at Nova Southeastern University, who’s conducted studies of clustering in major college athletics.

Athletes “become a pawn,” Finley said. “They’re there to play the sport and major in eligibility.”

For certain popular majors in college athletics “sometimes you’ll find that students in those programs can have lower GPAs, take fewer high-level courses and ‘create’ their own program, which allows them to target more professors who are ‘friends of the program,’” Finley said.

The focus when big-time athletic prospects come to campus is simply to keep them on the field, said Jason Lanter, a psychology professor and president of the Drake Group, which helps “faculty and staff defend academic integrity in the face of the burgeoning college sport industry.”

“The coach says, ‘I don’t care, make them eligible,’” said Lanter of some coaches’ attitudes toward academics.

The result is that players spend their time on campus, maybe get a degree, but in a field that doesn’t interest them and that presents little future opportunity, Lanter said.

In essence, a wasted degree.

Kansas University

Many of the schools involved in the Journal-World study, as well as the NCAA, declined comment for this article, or provided brief email statements.

Representatives from the KU Athletics Department, however, sat down for an in-depth discussion of clustering and how the department works with student athletes to choose majors.

“We have nothing to hide,” said Paul Buskirk, associate athletics director. “We are 100 percent transparent and accountable.”

Buskirk, along with Scott Ward, a fellow KU associate athletics director, explained the advising process.

Sometimes, student athletes come in with a set idea for what they want to major in. Then there’s the majority who aren’t sure, Ward said.

So those first two years on campus, they advise student athletes to focus on general education requirements and discourage students from choosing a major early, because if they change their mind, it could cause eligibility problems.

“Once you decide, you have to stick with it,” said Ward, outlining NCAA requirements that student athletes complete a certain proportion of their majors at the end of each year. Change majors, and it all gets messy.

After two years, some players still aren’t sure. That’s when more general majors, such as communications, are considered, Ward said. The ultimate goal, though, is to find majors that the players are interested in and that will make them employable when they graduate, Ward said.

And those players who plan to jump ship for the pros?

Ward knows they’re out there, but “I can’t think that way,” he said. “They’re going to be employable” when they leave.

Buskirk, meanwhile, discounted the idea that some of the majors clustered in the Journal-World study contain “easy” classes.

“There is no degree on this campus that’s a cake walk,” he said, emphasizing that the majority of courses a player takes in his college career are not from one major. “There’s no place to hide.”

The department also monitors clustering for potential problems. But its research shows no issues, Buskirk said.

“It’s an honest program,” he said.

It may be an honest program, but the numbers don’t lie; clustering happens on the KU men’s basketball team and across the Big 12.


The Journal-World study found clustering in only two other KU sports teams: football and women’s soccer.

On the football team, 17, or 26.5 percent, of 64 players who had indicated a major on the online roster majored in one of the business school’s specialities, such as finance or accounting. However, that percentage isn’t far off from the 15.7 percent of all KU athletes who major in business.

It’s a quick logical trip to explain the clustering found on the women’s soccer team, where 11 of 23 players majored in community health or exercise science. A little common sense would predict that student athletes, having played sports all their lives, might choose sports or fitness-related majors like community health or exercise science at higher rates than nonathletes.

The same holds true for the men’s basketball team, Buskirk said.

Communications is a fit for athletes who might want to pursue sports coaching or sports broadcasting, he said.

For those KU men’s basketball players who choose African and African-American studies, there’s also a logical answer.

All of the KU players since 2004 who chose that major are themselves black. They show up in Lawrence, a predominantly white community, oftentimes from cities with high black populations. That dynamic interests them, Buskirk said.

“It’s part of who they are,” he said.

There are other more head-scratching examples across the Big 12.

At Oklahoma State, for instance, 34 percent of the football team majors in education. Though OSU has a large education school, 10 percent of undergraduates are education majors; the numbers are still disproportionate.

Marilynn Middlebrook, OSU associate athletics director, said there’s a logical conclusion there as well.

“They want to stay in football” as coaches, and choose education, Middlebrook said.

“I don’t think ours is a clustering issue,” she said.

What about Texas A&M, with 37 percent of football and basketball players majoring in agricultural leadership and development?

According to the school’s website, the program is designed for those who plan to venture into the world of crops and farming. In Texas, that makes sense.

But many of the basketball players who choose that major come from places associated with anything but agriculture.

There’s guard Dash Harris, from Los Angeles; forward David Loubeau, from Miami; and guard Naji Hibbert, from Baltimore.

Representatives from Texas A&M declined an interview request, but did provide an email statement.

“There are a number of agriculture majors who are doing well in their respective fields and careers. The variety of these degree paths provide many options for our students, as well as our student athletes,” said John Thornton, interim director of athletics, in the statement. “It is not the specific degree that makes the student, but it is what the student does with that degree.”


So what’s left are those universities who see no problems with clustering in their programs, despite the numbers, along with the NCAA, which isn’t publicly sounding alarm bells.

Then there are those in the academic community, such as Finley and Lanter, who worry that big-time college athletics’ open secret of clustering leaves student athletes ill-prepared for a world outside of the field or court.

“Do they really have academic freedom?” said Lanter, who is concerned that athletics programs use a player for his gifts, but fail to live up to their end of the bargain. “What’s really going on here?”

Google form

KU majors

Charts depicts KU student athlete majors for most current season. Statistics were obtained from the KU Athletics website roster information for 349 student athletes who had indicated a major.

Google form

KU men's basketball since 2004

Charts shows the distribution of majors for KU men's basketball players between 2004 and 2012. During that time, 43 players indicated a major in the KU media guide.

Google form

Texas A & M football

Chart shows the majors of Texas A & M football players from the 2011 season. The current season roster has not yet been released.

Google form

Baylor football majors

Chart shows the majors of Baylor football players for the upcoming season. Information obtained from the Baylor Athletics website. According to Baylor's academic website, the general studies program is for the "general career areas of health, fitness, recreation, and sports."


Jayhawk_4_Life 1 year, 9 months ago

Hittle, this is an awful article with unfounded assertions. Stick with what you know.


buffalo63 1 year, 10 months ago

This even starts in high school. I had a football "star" and a basketball "star" in a class. The football "star slept in class and got a "B". The basketball "star" (siting in front of the teacher) kept turning around during a test to copy off the person behind. The teacher said nothing and the kicker was, I saw the two test papers after they were graded. The "star" received an "A", the other a "B". The same answer was correct on the "star's" test and wrong on the other test.

I would hope the athletes actually learn something of the subjects they take, unlike the two high school athletes in my psychology class.


Robert Rauktis 1 year, 10 months ago

For a "pointless article", it sure spawned a lot of thoughtful replies. Complete sentences and even punctuation.

Like everything, there is a fine line to maintain "student-athletes" and still win. And the propoganda from the NCAA makes a very good point that a very high percentage of athletes do graduate. I think it would be fairer to compare the rates to all comers in their freshman classes. Lots of these do not come close to any degree. (We'll not talk about psychology degrees and answering phones.) And playing tennis or hanging out with the right people means a lot during formative years. Immeasurable. Structure instead of chaos at a formative time. Maybe a win-win situation: "She used me, I used her...we were working on the night moves".-Bob Seger


Number_1_Grandma 1 year, 10 months ago

Athletics in college is a business; not about education. The best thing we can do for these kids is not lie to them or exploit them.

Worry about adequately funding K-12 per constitution!

Higher education is not a necessity to most athletes....'You know, footsball bin verwy, verwy good to me, $ 1,000,000.00.'

Reach kids in K-12 by adequately funding and maybe we can reach these 'athletes' in understanding life after sports is by education.


MyName 1 year, 10 months ago

It's always good to see a well researched article about issues that have interest locally. However, it is really hard to say that there's anything odd about them picking the majors that they did. I suppose the only definitive answer would be to also ask the ones who have left KU how closely their major fits with what they're actually doing post-college which is not something that is easy to track down.


KEITHMILES05 1 year, 10 months ago

It is nobodys business except the athlete what major they will be doing. This is a non-issue and only trying to stir the pot in an unfavorable way to athletes.


toe 1 year, 10 months ago

An article full of nonsense. We do not care if the athlete goes to school. We only care if there are wins.


irvan moore 1 year, 10 months ago

i think if you look at the job opportunities for student athletes you will find a lot of them with pretty good jobs due to having been an athlete regardless of what degree they may or may not have received


James Minor 1 year, 10 months ago

Athletes are recruited by major universities for their skill in their sport. If they can't perform as expected sometimes they are asked to pursue other interests at another school. Athletes that perform well in very tough degrees, Engineering, Science, Medicine, are exceptions. Jacque Vaughn, Darnell Valentine, Christian Moody, Milt Newton, Gale Sayers, to name a few, were exceptional students before attending KU. The discipline stayed with them, the coaches and faculty were understanding, and the results are individuals with successful careers.


AverageCitizen 1 year, 10 months ago

KU requires a good chunk of time from the athletes for practice, film study, weight training and travel to games. Why wouldn’t you want professors who are flexible? As far as the athletic department keeping tabs on how the athletes are doing, that’s great! How is this a bad thing? If I were a parent, I’d be thrilled that they were monitoring my child’s classwork and keeping him on track!

Sympathetic professors aren’t necessarily cheating professors, which is the implication here. Students being directed toward majors? So, say I have an interest in acting. Would you be surprised if I went into theatre as a major? Why should you be surprised athletes are interested in communications? Many players think they are going into the NBA and then get a job with ESPN afterwards. Studies show this current generation have unrealistic ideas about how much money they are going the make. Athletes aren’t any different and they are really closer to that goal than the acting student who thinks he is going to be a big star. Are you going to redirect that student because acting isn’t practical? Whose responsibility is it to take advantage of an education?

KU’s Academic Progress Rates scores are ranked among the top 10% in their respective sports according to the most recent NCAA report.

Obviously many are concerned with our athletes being used but safe guards only go so far. It is up to each student and family to educate themselves and direct their own future.


James Minor 1 year, 10 months ago

"Clustering" is not a suprising revelation. Because student atheletes have a strict daily schedule it is probably best that they have similar classes to help them cope with the daily demands. They are supposed to play as a team why not study as a team.


COjayrocks 1 year, 10 months ago

One more question. If 'X' student receives a 14 on his ACT and graduates high school with a 2.1 GPA, does he deserve to be at KU (or any 4 year University, the KU part is not part of my argument) ? The answer is no, but suddenly he can run a 4.4 and KU (and everyone else) pays for his education and many expect the kid to have a 3.5 GPA in Microbiology. First, kudos to the kid for working hard to excel at something that may give him a chance to be successful in his career choice. It's not easy getting a scholarship to a D1 school just on talent, lots of people have the talent but get into trouble or are too lazy to ever fulfill their gift beyond their youth. But if they are a great athlete and a mediocre student, now whom should the blame be put on when he/she inevitably fail in the classroom?

However, it is also not the schools responsibility to hold the kids hand through undergrad. His low test scores would not have permitted him/her to attend KU under normal circumstances (or any 4 year school), so he should view it as an opportunity and maximize it. If he does not, it is not the professors, administrators, and most especially the coaches fault if he becomes ineligible.

The more I think about it the more the "student-athlete" concept bothers me. It has helped many and been very effective, and still is, and will continue to but some kids just aren't meant to go to college. It's hard to treat everyone the same, and I see absolutely zero problem with those that 'cluster' their academic course load in order to better allow them to succeed in the classroom so they can stay on the field/court/track/pitch.

What was this purpose of this article? It seems to lack perspective. I've seen many examples over the years where a hard working kid, that wouldn't get to go to college otherwise, gets to stand proudly next to his family as he holds his general studies degree and poses next to his beaming parents on graduation day during a photo op. He is happy that he became the first person in his family to earn a college degree, and some knucklehead next to him wants to give him a hard time because 'general studies' wasn't in the top ten of US News and World reports "Best Degrees of 2012" article. Just because a 'general studies' degree would not satisfy you or would validate your time in college doesn't mean it is impractical, less meaningful, or not worth pursuing as a backup plan if professional athletics doesn't work out.


Jayhawk1958 1 year, 10 months ago

I'm not bitter about that as I'm having an successful career, it's just the way it is.


Jayhawk1958 1 year, 10 months ago

And one more important point to bring out-athletes get preferential treatment when it comes to geting hired. I have a Master's degree in sport management and can't get a job because they will hire an athlete over me everytime.


pepper_bar 1 year, 10 months ago

Genuine question: What was the point of this article?

The clear bias in the article is that clustering is something we all should be concerned with, but there's absolutely nothing in the article to indicate this is really worth any concern, save the snarky "major in eligibility" comment.

I'll agree that African Studies doesn't have a clear career path ahead of it, but so what? An employer will see that major on a resume alongside the fact that the kid devoted many hours each week to intercollegiate athletics, gaining teamwork skills and collecting personal accomplishments. What side of that kid's college experience will matter more to a job recruiter?

If you don't think a kid learns significantly from participating in competitive athletic programs, where there's a winner and a loser after every play, you don't know much about how the world really works.


Jayhawk1958 1 year, 10 months ago

I think another point to the article is that its very difficult to get a job today with a general liberal arts degree, like the degrees pointed out in clustering. When I graduated from KU in 1982 I remember students would get hired no matter what the degree was in. But with the current economic model you need a professional degree which are more difficult academically to earn such as-business, law, medical, engineering etc. to have a better chance at a job. Of course even with those degrees people are having a difficult time being employed. Today's work world is skill-driven and higher education is not designed to meet that need.


yourworstnightmare 1 year, 10 months ago

The real problem is that the tail is staring to wag the dog.

It is one thing for an athletics department to monitor professors and classes and majors for ones that will be easy for the student athletes.

What is now happening is that athletics departments are beginning to actually influence the curriculum and academic standards at KU and other universities.

Maybe it has been going on a long time, but it needs to stop if academics are going to be serious at universities.

Big time college athletics has grown into something unrecognizable compared to its original intent. Some athletics still serve that intent (to let students attend college who otherwise could not).

Why force a skilled basketball of football player to go through the charade of academics, when they could go directly into the pros or a pro development system?

The problem is that universities are shouldering the pro development league responsibilities that the pro leagues themselves should pay for, similar to baseball.

The universities might benefit monetarily, but to the detriment of the academic mission.


Jayhawk1958 1 year, 10 months ago

This is not a new issue. How do you think the Nebraskas and Florida States of the world back in the day were able to qualify so many academically challenged players.


shotgun 1 year, 10 months ago

The problem is that some learning institutions turn a blind eye to academic standards when it comes to the "cash cows" that fill the seats at sports arenas.

Playing varsity sports at KU or any other university, then getting drafted professionally does not insure success. Does anyone think The Morris twins will have long NBA careers?

T-Rob was quoted as saying the first thing he would purchase with his NBA money would be, "an iced up Rolex". Hope he got a useful degree. (Values suggest he will need one in case he blows out a knee.)

Some institutions have higher standards than others. Its funny how the top teams in the NCAA seem to have lower graduate numbers.


LJD230 1 year, 10 months ago

Once out of Kansas, how competitive is any degree from KU?


ssteve1 1 year, 10 months ago

I mean like I don't get it. I'm here playin basetball and stuff an I be majrin in biness and like whats duh problem an stuff!


onceajhawkalwaysajhawk 1 year, 10 months ago

Absolutely a worthless attempt for a story..


COjayrocks 1 year, 10 months ago

Just because every single student athlete (keeping in mind the sports that DO allow for a professional opportunities like bball, fball, baseball, etc as opposed to wrestling, volleyball, etc...) does not make it as a pro does not mean that we have a right to tell them they cannot work for it. If I was a Division 1 athlete playing football, for example, I would work incredibly hard every day to realize my dream of becoming a professional athlete. Who are we to tell them that they have a far less chance to succeed than they do to fail?

Would you dictate to an artist that he should switch majors to business to better position himself for professional stability? How about a writer?

My biggest point is, I think it is incredibly bigoted to act as if we know where they kids' priorities and efforts should be put forth.

I think the more important question goes to students that are NOT student athletes pursuing a degree in communications, african american studies, or general studies. Yet, it would be impolite to bring that up to one of them, wouldn't it?

Bottom line: Athletes in the appropriate sports are there to attempt to realize their dream of reaching the pinnacle of athletics and become a professional. And if I had the talent to do that, that is where my time and effort would go as well.


Jayhawk1963 1 year, 10 months ago

In the old days, late fifties to early sixties, most of the jocks (and best looking coeds) majored in Primary, Secondary or Physical Education. It was common knowledge that the easiest departments/schools were, in order, Social Welfare, Education & Journalism. The professional schools that required more intelligence and hard work like Business, Engineering, Pharmacy, etc. were assiduously avoided.

Maybe that's why, even today, most brain-dead, left-wing buttheads still gravitate toward being "counselors", "teachers" and "journalists". Probably also helps explain the quality of Journal World reporting and/or the performance of USD 497 !!!


yourworstnightmare 1 year, 10 months ago

Another activity the athletics department engages in is to have "chaperones" for certain academically-troubled athletes.

These chaperones are often retirement age men (maybe volunteers?) who sit outside of the classroom and ensure that the student athlete attends class and does not leave until the class is over.

If you ever see an older man sitting outside of a classroom, this is likely a student athlete chaperone.


Tomato 1 year, 10 months ago

Just FYI - The General Studies degree at Baylor is touted as being acceptable for preparation for careers in health, sports, fitness and recreation. It falls under the school of Education and the majority of the classes are Health, Human Performance and Recreation.

That's not to say that the scenario illustrated in this article is not taking place there, but it's also no surprise that sports players might head in that direction.

Liberal Studies at Iowa State is barely even a major at all. It's a program designed to graduate people who don't know what to major in. Take enough classes and they'll give you a degree. It is impossible to know from the information provided if clustering is even occurring in that major, since two Liberal Studies majors could be taking totally different classes and ending up with the same degree.

I suppose it's fair to say that Iowa State probably wouldn't allow 63 percent of its student body to "major" in Liberal Studies, but it allows 63 percent of its basketball team to do exactly that. I don't know if the failure there is "clustering" so much as not offering appropriate guidance to the players in order to ensure they exit with an actual major.


yourworstnightmare 1 year, 10 months ago

Great article.

The athletic department keeps close tabs on the behavior of professors toward student athletes. Those professors who are "problematic" (won't be flexible to student athlete travel and exams) are put in the "bad" column, and those who are flexible are put on the "good" list.

The athletics department also sends out forms during the semester to professors with student athletes in their classes. The professors are supposed to mark a box as to the current performance of the student athlete and return it to the athletics department. In this way, the athletics department can also determine which professors and which classes accommodate this request and thus might be favorable to student athletes.

Also, the faculty athletics committee is used to smooth interactions with student athletes and professors, and members of this committee often work very closely with student athletes.

The reason that student athletes are directed toward certain majors is due to the results of this monitoring of the faculty: the degrees are less demanding academically and the classes are taught by sympathetic professors.

The athletics department seems to spend much time monitoring faculty and classes and working with the faculty athletics committee to provide an accommodating (i.e. easy, less rigorous) major such that the student athletes can focus on their sport.


whats_going_on 1 year, 10 months ago

yeah, I don't really see the point of this either. And is this supposed to shock people? I was under the impression that they all majored in the same thing anyway. I figured it was sports management though.

It should come to no surprise that they are here to play ball, not to excel in academics (sadly.)


David Dunlap 1 year, 10 months ago

So I'm curious what the problem is. The article states that the degree is wasted, yet, all of the mentioned athletes will be drafted into the NBA this year (Taylor and Robinson) or have been or are currently in the NBA. Dr. Ward makes it clear that these students can't change majors easily or risk losing eligibility. KU basketball in recent years has graduated two doctors (Moody and Pugh), a physical therapist (Reed), and an architectural engineer(Kleinmann). I'm sure they are not alone in recent achievement by our graduates.

The follow up story should be a "Where Are They Now?" type article. Are we sending out a bunch of low income or unemployed individual to add to the welfare state of Kansas with "In essence, a wasted degree." or are we actually helping nearly all of them achieve a higher quality of life as should be the goal. We get it that not all of these guys are high academic achievers and just came here to play basketball and get to the next level. This is not a revealing article. It is just one that implies failure but fails to provide a single example.


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