Are Student Athletes Worse Than Other Students? Deadspin Contest

Ambrose Bierce, as usual, summarized it best for us in the Devil’s Dictionary:

ACADEME, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.

ACADEMY, n. (from academe). A modern school where football is taught.

As evidence for the disheartening, inexorable slide into the abyss, we have this “essay”, supposedly written by a DePaul basketball player in his introductory writing course (be sure to read all of it):

Favorite Song

The topic I choose is number four because I like to listing to music especially the love songs because it gets you in the mode for a lot of things. It gets you in the sex mode or even just a chilling mode if you are just relating some where. Love songs some times help people in there relationships some times to because people tend to play songs that’s similar to what they are going through or how they might fill about that person but is afraid to tell the other person, so they let the song say how they really fill about that person.

I don’t really have just one love song I really like because I don’t really listing a lot of slow music. But I have a couple I do listing to when ever I am about to get in to that romance mode or just trying to relaxes in my room. One of the songs I will listing to if a lady friend is over is probably Pretty Ricky song, “Honey” because it sets the mode off right away.

Another song I like is R.Kelly, “filling on your booty”. Now this one is for the one night stand girls because it gets right to the point of what I want to go down. The song starts with chorus and he starts to sing and it goes like this, …

This essay features in a contest by the website Deadspin: “The Search For America’s Dumbest Student-Athlete.” They ask that professors—and many of you are such—send entries to

Word of the contest is spreading (pace this post). Even the Chronicle of Higher Education mentioned it. It was from them that I learned of the site Rate Your Students (which has since ceased posting new material).

All professors like confirmation that they do not suffer alone, but the hope was soon exhausted on the Rate Your Students site because it became readily apparent from where many students learn their bad habits. The writing from teachers is poor and laced with profanity. They doubtless feel this makes them hip, a quality they need to possess so that their criticisms of student shortcomings are not pedantic.

In any case, Rate Your Students proves that intellectual inadequacy is not confined to the courts or fields of the groves of academe. But perhaps it is worst there. The contest will tell.

It is often argued that a college’s sports teams—usually just the men’s football squad, the other groups providing only red ink—generate a steady stream of income; and for some schools, this stream is a torrent. True, the salaries of the coaches and athletic directors, plus the upkeep of the fields, buildings (always the newest), and equipment drains a healthy portion of the streams out of the university, but there is always something left over for administrators to play with.

It is not even an open secret, but a truism and a necessary consequence of the need to fill uniforms that most college athletes are poor students, and that if it weren’t for their facility with a ball, most would never meet the colleges’ entrance requirements.

A few are so dismally unable to multiply fractions, or to compose essays, that they wash out. But most glide through with a—thanks to grade inflation—gentleman’s B. This situation is tolerated because administrators, professors, and alumni desire that their schools rate high on ESPN. The football field skyboxes (or equivalent) also make lovely places for presidents and board members to entertain and raise funds.

This wouldn’t be so bad—even the kids who fail get to eat and sleep free for a few months out of each year—except for its effects on the remainder of the students (and some professors). For example, when last I taught, students in two classes expected that I would cancel class the day after the game with the traditional rival. The day after, mind. Other profs did as much for them. It was traditional.

I refused, of course, using the old-fashioned argument that their studies were more important, and that if I had to be in class, they did, too. Come the day after, the census was down a bit, but not substantially. Missing, of course, were two members of the football team. Presumably they were recuperating.


  1. DAV

    I’m not in the participate mode today. I’m just going to kick back and relate and chill.

  2. Ray

    When I was in college the athletes were famous (infamous?) for their lack of intellectual ability. They were never going to be chemists, mathematicians, physicists, or engineers. They might get a degree in phys ed or business administration.

  3. imp

    I know this is totally OT, but as card carrying Bayesian, what do you think of the new approach of McShane and Wyner to evaluating paleo proxy reconstructions through a Bayesian model? The skeptic world is abuzz with this new paper which does appear to be direct shot at Mann et. al. The authors’ pedigrees are impressive with Stanford and Wharton PhD’s (yes, I know, not Cornell, but not too shabby either) and the statistical journal is reputable. If this holds up, it could be a game changer.

  4. Pat Moffitt

    I’m surprised by this post. Are we saying all athletes are “academically challenged”, some athletes or athletes compared to some “non athletic” norm? Or something else entirely? I’m not sure what school Ray attended but I know a number of athletes that now hold Ph.Ds in the sciences, MDs and MBAs from “elite” universities. In fact I would say that student athletes knew more about a work ethic than many on campus. And despite the fact that some like to paint the athlete as hard drinking eternal party-goers- the reality is -it is very tough to go out drinking every night with the Liberal Arts majors and still hit the weight room at 6AM.

  5. Karl Z

    It’s worse than “dumbness.” There’s a direct conflict of interest on the part of universities, and a monopoly on student-athlete time for athletics. Yes, there are a LOT of dumb student-athletes to fill uniforms, but there’s a lot more going on that makes even the smart kids look dumb, which impacts (ruins?) their entire lives for maybe a few minutes of fame “now.” It even drives many of the smart ones away. Winning and academic achievement are often in direct conflict with each other, and more often than not, “winning” wins. Matt doesn’t get into that, but in some cases the “dumbness” is an institutional problem, even a direct action of the coaches and administration, and not necessarily the student’s fault.

    I’ve seen a lot of conflicts with athletics as my school. I’m not even at a “football factory” –mine is a small private school. We aren’t allowed to schedule required classes outside of 8:00 am to 11:00 am and 12:00 noon to 3:00 pm because of athletics, for instance. That sounds nice, but it mangles both student schedules and faculty availability. Learning is work, not a passive activity. Plus, some sports have weight lifting and other conditioning in the morning AND normal practice every day at 3:00pm. And after you spent 2 hours running and lifting weights, are you going to be at your best (or even awake) for your 9:00 am class? Or to do your homework that evening after practice and time on the training table? So, you tell me, which is more important, class time or practice time?

    BTW, Matt–many, many men’s basketball programs also make money. It’s actually easier for basketball to make money than football, especially for a smaller school, because it usually isn’t as expense-laden as football (smaller roster, no helmets and pads, more games per season so there are more income opportunities). Our football program is non-scholarship and only makes red ink, but the basketball team is “big time.”

  6. Once one of my duties entailed overseeing a student star running back on scholarship at the local public university putting in limited hours with my firm for paid “work experience”. Since he neither wrote nor read the language it was a challenge finding enough meaningful work to provide a benefit to my company. Our honchos, of course, didn’t care one whit so long as the guy kept scoring touchdowns. Once his career-ending injury came, however, every thing changed and he was out on his ear. He had nothing – except a child on the way. In sympathy and out of a certain sense of responsibility I hired him as a day laborer doing the same menial job he had been doing as a student athlete. He actually improved and became a valuable employee, but when automation came along illiteracy did him in and he had to be let go.

  7. commieBob

    A student’s academic accomplishment may not matter much when that student enters the job market. Study upon study point out that, as long as someone has the minimum qualifications for a job, extra academic qualifications, in terms of high marks or extra degrees, provide no benefit.

    The thing that matters on the job is people skills.

    Being on the football team is more likely to develop people skills than staying in the dorm and studying hard all the time.

    My lecture to the incoming students is something like: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. All you have to do is pass my class and get a high enough average that we don’t kick you out of the program. Join the professional association (in our case, the IEEE) and attend the meetings. Act interested. The members are the people handing out the jobs when you graduate. Budget some time for exercise. (Avoid football, it will likely leave you broken.)

  8. PJ

    Regarding profanity-laced writing I think this is lack of self-censorship really an intergenerational thing and it’s something I really don’t like.
    I distinctly remember when I was 22 (I’m 25 now) I was waiting for someone at the mall perusing the aisles when two extremely foul-mouthed young teens started cursing like drunken sailors right in front of the families with children. Without even thinking I instinctively turned around and said “Watch your language guys, there are little kids around” and they were appropriately contrite and sheepishly acknowledged.

    After I had my episode of “Dear God I sound old!” I pulled myself together, thought about it, and realized that most of my writing and regular speech tends to be profanity laced as well. When you don’t find yourself in situations where you have to think about your role as a role-model it’s easy to forget to maintain the filter between your brain and your mouth. This is the situation we have where people tend to segregate by age-cohorts. It’s rare that you will find a 20-something associating with people who have children or with the elderly unless they are related to them. I don’t know if this is a new thing or not, I don’t have enough years under my belt to say so definitively and, being an immigrant, my family doesn’t have any intergenerational bequeathed knowledge of what life was like “Back then” in America. But it really affects how we carry ourselves and how we talk when we’re in public. We tend to behave as if the whole world should be catered to our cohort and forget that there are other people with different needs out there.

    The same conceit is apparent with oldies too. You need only attend any ANC meeting about opening a restaurant with outdoor seating that might *GHASP!* serve liquor.

  9. rmi

    Mr. Briggs:

    OT but please, please, please comment on the McShane & Wyner 2010 climate paper currently in discussion at ClimateAudit. PLEASE!


  10. As a former college athuleet (hockey, not generally known for rocket scientists), a difference between our team and this sample is that we weren’t scholarship athletes. We participated on our team (not D1, to be sure) for love of the game and the joy of competition. It took 4+ hours a day, 6+ days a week, for about 6 months of the school year. That, of course, was all outside of normal classroom times except for the occasional Friday morning or afternoon bus/van ride to far flung realms like DePere, WI or Huntsville, AL, for Friday night/Saturday night games.

    Since my principal purpose for being at my University was to become educated in the discipline of Computer Science and Engineering, I preferred classes to hockey. The vast majority my teammates did likewise, as we learned from the upperclassmen. Some have gone on to become modestly famous (Lee Archambault, a Forward on our team, is an Astronaut who ended up “doing time” in the Space Station not too long ago), and the other few that I keep track of have all been graduates and successful in business or the military.

    That noted, when the bar is dropped for a certain group of individuals, is it surprising that they perform at the level expected, or that they respond to the incentives provided by the University?

  11. Xenophon

    Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the President of my alma mater made himself extremely unpopular in the NCAA by suggesting — in all seriousness — that the Division 1 schools with large and lucrative sports organizations admit de jure what was already de facto true, to wit: The “student” athletes on those Div-1 big-$$ teams are actually employees of the University, with some course-work thrown in as a side-benefit. Further, in many sports — notably football, basketball, and hockey — the NCAA teams effectively serve as the “farm system” for the professional leagues.

    Need I mention that we were a NCAA Div-III school with absolutely no athletic scholarships whatsoever?

    It went over like a lead balloon. Worse than a lead balloon, really. More like a shambling, incoherent, smelly homeless person in the Queen’s box at Ascot on Opening Day. The Div-III college presidents were all in favor; no big surprise. Div-II presidents were split. Div-I were unanimously against the proposal; no surprise here, either. And the NCAA board was unanimously against the proposal as well.

    I agree with previous posters that the “student athletes are [academically] worse than other students” proposition appears to lack merit when applied to schools (and teams) that lack big scholarships, big $$, and big interest from alumni with very deep pockets. As for the case Mr. Briggs presumably intended to address, I have no relevant personal experience from which to judge.

  12. Pat Moffitt

    What is the bigger problem— a few student athletes that may not fit a university’s academic norm — or the fact a university produces 1000s of Liberal Arts degrees for which society has no need? Degrees that often consume a family’s lifetime savings or impose crushing debt on the graduate but fails to give in return a single job skill.

    An English professor at a local Public university recently lectured the press and the culturally unwashed about money wasted on a new football stadium. I am open to the economic debate surrounding stadiums. But not from an English professor who forces young minds to endure Beowulf- or worse Ulysses- and demands the taxpayer fund this sadism. If we are going to force students to take a “boring” course– make it a fundamentally useful one- like statistics.

    (PS- I actually liked my stat courses- but admit its an acquired taste)

  13. According Malcolm Gladwell, “athletes are far more likely to go into the high-paying financial-services sector, where they succeed because of their personality and psychological makeup.”

    So if you were wondering who made all those bad investment decisions on Wall Street …

  14. Larry Geiger

    Rogues I say, rogues!
    Mr. Briggs, it appears that you and your commenters are rogues.
    (I’m enjoying it immensely, so far.)

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