Phillip Marshall Column: Another 'So What'

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes another look at the academic questions surround the AU football team.

When I was a college freshman, I took a class called earth science. Our major project for the semester was to make a map of a certain area. We worked in two-person teams.

I was clueless.

After about two days, my partner looked at me in frustration. "I just got out of the Army," he told me. "You know what I did? This is what I did. Buy me a case of beer and stay out of my way."

I couldn't believe my good fortune. I didn't have much money, but I scraped up enough to buy that case of beer. I stayed out of his way and we made 99 on the project. That was the key to my making a decent grade in the course.

Was I wrong? Probably. Did I do anything different than 99 percent of other college students would do? Nope.

Moving forward 38 years, I have a friend whose daughter will be a freshman at Auburn this fall. She was an A student at a challenging high school and will take a demanding curriculum. Her advisor--who has nothing to do with athletics--suggested she take a certain elective to go with her other coursework because "it will be an easy A."

Is that bad? Not at all. Is it unusual? Not in the least.

Sociology professor James Gundlach's latest salvo alleges that Auburn athletes, especially those academically at risk, took easier elective courses to help their grade point averages stay high enough so that they would be eligible.

My first reaction was "So what?" And that's still my reaction.

It doesn't take an academic counselor--in the athletics department or elsewhere--for a student to learn which professors are easy graders, which courses one can take and be almost assured of a high grade. Auburn has those courses and professors. Alabama has them. Stanford has them. Duke has them.

Word of which professors or classes to avoid and which ones to seek spreads quickly through any campus group--a fraternity, a sorority, an athletic team, a group living in the same apartment or dormitory. So it has always been.

Under NCAA rules, athletes are limited in the number of electives, easy or otherwise, they can take. They must have completed 40 percent of the requirements for their major by the end of their second year, 60 percent by the end of the third and 80 percent by the end of the fourth. Only courses that count specifically toward requirements for their major are included in those calculations.

Another student can take electives until there are no more available. Athletes can't. Beyond that, the NCAA doesn't care if athletes take organic gardening or differential equations.

There has always been and, I guess, always will be a certain amount of tension between athletics and academics at schools with big-time athletics programs. When student-athletes with poor academic backgrounds are admitted to major universities, it should come as no surprise to anyone that they often seek out majors in which they have a legitimate chance to succeed while dealing with the immense demands of playing their sports.

Is it better for an athlete to leave with a degree in criminology or to try to major in chemical engineering and flunk out of school? The answer seems obvious.

All this started, of course, when Gundlach, the sociology director, accused department head and criminology professor Thomas Petee of academic wrongdoing. Petee, it turns out, was teaching far more directed study classes than is considered feasible. A minority of the students in those classes were athletes.

In an interview two weeks ago, Gundlach told me his motivation was that he believed Petee unfit to be a department administrator and that he never said that the issue was exclusively about athletics. Now he seems to be focusing all his attention on athletes.

Gundlach seems to be a nice man, and I don't doubt that his motives are pure. However, I wonder about poring over the transcripts of students--athletes or others – for the purpose of making a point.

In an interview with another newspaper Saturday, he even speculated that drugs could have been involved when a particular athlete's grades suddenly dropped.

"When you see that kind of problem emerging with grades, the most common problem it reflects is drugs," Gundlach told The Mobile Register. "They're just throwing this person into easy classes, rather than seeing it as an alarm, rather than seeing whether there's something amiss with this person that needs to be checked out. That's neglecting the student."

That's an amazing, troubling and outrageous statement that, without a shred of evidence, unfairly impugns the integrity of the academic counselors and almost every one else in the Auburn athletic program.

I'm not an expert on privacy laws or on Auburn's privacy policy, but I do know that not even the parents who are paying the bills can see a student's grades without written permission from the student.

Gundlach, no doubt, knows the rules and the law. I doubt he would go over the line, but it seems he's getting awfully close to it.

Though Gundlach has mentioned no names, 14 Auburn football players list their majors as sociology or criminology (the media guide lists 16, but Montae Pitts is gone and Joe Cope actually has a degree in economics). It isn't difficult for anyone with familiarity with the program to recognize some of the players about whom he is talking.

Based on other SEC schools, there is nothing unusual about 14 football players pursuing two related majors. In fact, it is more striking at other schools than it is at Auburn.

At Florida, 16 football players list social and behavioral sciences as their major. Fourteen list sociology, 10 anthropology and six criminology. If the setup at Florida was the same as it is at Auburn, all those would come under the umbrella of the sociology department.

At LSU, a striking 39 football players list general studies as their major. At Arkansas, 13 list sociology and 11 list kinesiology. Even at Vanderbilt, 18 players list the same major--human and organizational development.

In the SEC as a whole, 38 football players list sociology as their major. How many of them plan to pursue careers in sociology? I don't know for sure, but my guess would be zero.

One of the worst parts about this whole thing is that a lot of Auburn athletes who have worked hard to succeed academically under difficult circumstances are having their accomplishments called into question.

They don't like it, and I don't blame them.

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