Helping Student Athletes Pass College

OK, choir, we sung this tune before, but here again is Maestro Bierce from his Devil’s Dictionary Songbook:

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

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

Bierce’s piercing definition found print about the same time James Thurber attended college, circa 1912. From Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times comes the essay, “University Days.” In his required economics course at Ohio State was a tackle on the football team, one Bolenciecwcz, one of the team’s “outstanding stars.”

In order to be eligible to play it was necessary for [Bolenciecwcz] to keep up in his studies, a very difficult matter, for while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter. Most of his professors were lenient and helped him along. None gave him more hints, in answering questions, or asked him simpler ones than the economics professor, a thin, timid man named Bassum. One day when we were on the subject of transportation and distribution, it came Bolenciecwcz’s turn to answer a question. “Name one means of transportation,” the professor said to him. No light came into the big tackle’s eyes. “Just any means of transportation,” said the professor. Bolenciecwcz sat staring at him. “That is,” pursued the professor, “any medium, agency, or method of going from one place to another.” Bolenciecwcz had the look of a man who is being led into a trap. “You may choose among steam, horse-drawn, or electricity propelled vehicles,” said the instructor. “I might suggest the one which we commonly take in making long journeys across land.” There was a profound silence in which everybody stirred uneasily, including Bolenciecwcz and Mr. Bassum. Mr. Bassum abruptly broke his silence in an amazing manner. “Choo-choo-choo,” he said, in a low voice, and turned instantly scarlet. He glanced appealingly around the room. All of us, of course, shared Mr. Bassum’s desire that Bolenciecwcz should stay abreast of the class in economics, for the Illinois game, one of the hardest and most important of the season, was only a week off. “Toot, toot, too-toooooooot!” some student with a deep voice moaned, and we all looked encouragingly at Bolenciecwcz. Somebody else gave a fine imitation of a locomotive letting off steam. Mr. Bassum himself rounded off the little show. “Ding, dong, ding, dong,” he said, hopefully. Bolenciecwcz was staring at the floor now, trying to think, his great brow furrowed, his huge hands rubbing together, his face red.

“How did you come to college this year, Mr. Bolenciecwcz?” asked the professor. “Chuffa chuffa, chuffa, chuffa.”

“M’father sent me,” said the football player.

“What on?” asked Bassum.

“I git an ‘lowance,” said the tackle, in a low, husky voice, obviously embarrassed.

“No, no,” said Bassum. “Name a means of transportation. What did you ride here on?”

“Train,” said Bolenciecwcz.

“Quite right,” said the professor. “Now, Mr. Nugent, will you tell us—”

The university I am visiting is busy building yet another athletic complex, large and inviting, to supplement the several other large and inviting athletic complexes who capacities were being strained. This university is not atypical: the sports fields take up a substantial proportion of the school’s real estate.

I haven’t made a systematic examination, of course, but each time I have been to the library, I have found it a very peaceful, uncrowded place; as well as warm and inviting. It’s computers nearest the main doors are nearly always manned, however—by students checking their Facebook accounts. Once I saw a student on what looked like a poker betting site.

As near as I can discern, the informal policy of many universities—certainly not just this one—is of helping the students make it through courses by any means necessary, to include methods with which Professor Bassum so generously assisted Bolenciecwcz the star athlete. Large failure rates would reflect negatively on a college’s ratings, thus hurting them financially when they went to their State legislatures to beg for more money.

In any case, as these writings show, the problem is far from new. We have been on the downward slope in general education—and not in original research—for quite some time. The bottom is still before us.


  1. gcb

    My understanding has been that it’s not just the public funding that the colleges are concerned with, but that their endowments from the wealthier alumni are often tied directly to the standing of their football teams within the college leagues. Is this correct? If so, while it doesn’t justify the inordinate level of support of the athletic teams, it certainly would explain it.

  2. DAV

    Reminds me of a childish joke where one is asked to repeat “choo-choo train” several times. Good thing the prof wasn’t expecting to hear “locomotive”. Maybe that’s for next semester.

  3. Ben

    I would have tried harder at university, maybe even cared enough to stay, if more professors had been like you… I changed from mathematics to physics to performing arts to arts – media, sexual history (of course), English, German, “Film, Television and Media”, Philosophy (actually had a very good department, should have stayed there). . . I’m thinking of going back to try an LLB for a change… at least it will be constant, almost, yes? I’d love further correspondence…

  4. JH

    A friend sent me the following link. Ken Robinson has another point of view as to why our schools are failing. He is an entertaining speaker.

    “I heard a great story recently — I love telling it — of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did.
    The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, “What are you drawing?”
    And the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”
    And the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.”
    And the girl said, “They will in a minute.”

    I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it? … There’s something curious about professors in my experience — not all of them, but typically — they live in their heads… They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads, don’t they?

    Now our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability…”

  5. JH

    Mr. Briggs,

    It seems that you are frustrated by your experience at the university you are visiting.

    Here is one of the reasons I love my job. I meet young adults with differences in their social and academic backgrounds, goals, learning styles, etc. All shades of life and all kinds of life stories. Yes, throughout the years, there are plenty of frustrating and disappointing moments, but without those moments there won’t be any proud ones either.

    And I think (and hope) that I have touched all my students’ lives in some small way by helping them understand what a binomial random variable is or by giving them a grade of F or by telling them stupid jokes or whatever. What a privilege to have such an opportunity!

  6. Ari

    I don’t know if my alma mater is unusual, but I knew a few people who either flunked out or just got through by a hair’s breadth.

    This was especially true in engineering and the sciences.

    I worked my butt off to get the grades I did in both undergrad and grad, and was told that both the UCs I attended are grade inflated. Perhaps. But maybe I somehow met a lot of professors who didn’t get that memo? Granted, so-called “top” schools are going to have more uniformly strong student bodies, so it’s going to be much harder to flunk them out anyway. Caltech sure tries, though!

    As for the argument that it’s sports that’s killing education, I don’t buy it. It’s badly managed universities that have big sports programs they lavish that’s killing education at those schools. Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA, Michigan, UT Austin, and others manage to have both excellent educational programs and sports programs.

    Sports programs can be bad for academics, but I’m glad that I went to a school with both. Where I saw students bonding over the pride of UCLA and its various teams, UCSD actively stomped on its sports programs to keep its image as a “pure academic environment.” There’s also a reason, I think, why so many UCSD students seem to lack any sense of belonging to an otherwise amazing institution.

  7. Briggs


    I am frustrated, yes. I have a wonderful experience with some of the kids, especially, as I’ve said, in calculus. But the university I’m visiting (and many others like it) is letting in far too many kids who are just not prepared or not otherwise ready for a rigorous college schedule.

    The frustration doesn’t only go one way: the students become demoralized, too. Even the good ones.

    Monday, I had one of the Algebra Sans Algebra students come to my class complaining that everything was far too easy. The student felt sorry for me having to go so slow.

    So here is a kid who signed up for a class expecting to learn what was advertised, but receiving far less so that I don’t lose too many of the other students.

    College is not high school. Everybody doesn’t “deserve” to be here. Only those that can handle the material should enroll.

  8. Ray

    Going to college is an example of cargo cult thinking. Egalitarians noticed that people with a college degree made more money than those without. Obviously if everybody obtained a college degree they would all make lots of money. The belief is that If you go to college 4 years and obtain a degree in basket weaving, this is the ticket to a high paying job. You go through the process of obtaining a degree and the goodies are supposed to arrive because of the magical properties of the degree.

    BTW, why do you need a calculator for algebra? I thought algebra was about the use of abstract symbols to represent mathematical objects and the rules for manipulating the symbols. I never had a calculator that could do symbolic mathematics but I do have a computer program that does.

  9. I tutored a student under Oregon State’s Educational Opportunities Program (EOP). The course was Microeconomics (Ec 201).

    After our first meeting, the lesson plan I came up with was focused on vocabulary. This young man seemed to have existed on eighty words prior to his enrollment at university. When he heard the words “marginal propensity to consume,” you’d just as well said “penury imhiring grandistat.”

    He was a scholarship athlete. I was hired to give him the tools to pass.

    This being said, it was not the responsibility of the professor to dumb down his course to match the abilities of his students. Econ is hard enough when you have the tools; math, language and logic. How would it have benefitted the remaining forty or fifty students in my student’s econ class to retard the rate of teaching, simply to benefit one student athlete?

    The teaching advantage I had I believe is due to my years spent studying Russian.

    I had no problem using pre-school, and elementary grade-level, Russian teaching materials when learning how to read and speak. Even with three years of study, picking up “War and Peace” in the original and reading with comprehension is a true task, and then one must realize that a great deal of sub-text is missed.

    My student received a B as a final grade. He wasn’t stupid. He hadn’t been taught. Contrast this experience with time spent as a TA for my favorite Writing 121 instructor. There, the unprepared were summarily executed as not worthy. And not many of those on the chopping block asked for help. It’s silly how difficult it is to ask for help, please.

  10. Doug M

    “State schools” are far more comfortable in failing a large percentage of thier student body.

    Private schools attempt to keep the unqualified from entering the front door, and are shepherd them through. Public universities accept a larger percentage of applicants and leave it to the students to sink or swim.

  11. Bernie

    Thanks for the link to the Ken Robinson speech. It is hard to disagree with his general point. At the same time, growing up in the 60s in the UK it seemed clear to me that even in an exam school where exam results were very important, there was plenty of tolerance for all kinds of different forms of creativity and intelligence.

    But the focus here is on tertiary education – and individuals have an enormous range of “education” experiences from which to chose. But both consumers and providers appear to be constructing and participating in a joint fantasy where something of debatable value is offered to those expending little effort at a significant price.

  12. Speed

    I found the following while doing some research on the University of Illinois budget.

    June 23, 1010
    URBANA, Il.—A University of Illinois panel that reviewed administrative functions throughout the university, as well as best practices for improving performance and reducing costs, has issued a final report with 43 recommendations that identify at least $58 million in savings if fully implemented within the next three years.

    The university has a $4.7 billion annual operating budget.

    That’s a savings of 0.4% over three years.

    The U of I employs more than 25,000 and provides an annual direct and indirect
    economic impact of $13 billion and creates 150,000 jobs yearly. The University
    spends $4.3 billion on payroll, supplies and services. And for every dollar the state
    of Illinois spends, an additional $17 is infused into the state’s economy.

    If they can get 17 dollars back for each and every dollar spent, they shouldn’t be spending less, they should spend more. Football, books, centrifuges … what’s the difference?

  13. JH


    Robison has very interesting insights. And you are right his talk is not about what we are talking about here. He does make me think that, maybe…just maybe, some of the professors in the department of Arts and Humanities are correct in claiming that their students don’t need to know algebra!

    Mr. Briggs,

    Obviously, we get frustrated because we do care!

    In fact, the title “college algebra” is an oxymoron to me. I would vote with my ten fingers up to abolish any algebra-sans-algebra course. It would be wonderful if the first math class offered at a university is Calculus, which was the case at my undergraduate institution back home. Sounds good? Not really. I still prefer the American college (no, not high school) education system. Sorry, I am not going to offer explanations on this.

    I am quite sure that my college professors were/are also frustrated by many students, e.g., JH who skipped many classes and put forth no effort or minimum efforts to pass classes during her freshman and sophomore years. And I “deserved” to be in college, one of the top ones, at least according to the entrance exam. *_^

  14. bob

    My first undergraduate economics professor was a young woman with a terrific body. She lectured while sitting on the edge of her desk with her skirt inching upwards, ever so slowly.

    But, I digress.

    On topic, I believe one of the problems with our higher education system is size. I fully believe in smaller schools and smaller classes. I went to large, state supported universities and was insistent on sending my kids to smaller, private universities with good reputations. The academics being taught may not be better, but the kids get better attention and I believe they are in a better environment for learning.

    Good luck, Briggs, on solving this puzzle.

  15. Myron

    Daughter is a freshmen majoring in Environmental Engineering. She is in the honors program and has to maintain a 3.5 GPA to keep her scholarship. She has surprised the upper classmen in her Physics class by taking Physics, Chemistry and Calculus 2 as a first semester Freshmen. She received an International Baccalaureate diploma in high school an graduated number five out of over five hundred students.
    I’m very proud of her. While I am no where near as smart as she is I still enjoy learning.

  16. Ari


    I’m a big advocate of the small liberal arts colleges, but I do think you can get a fantastic education at big schools. It largely depends on the individual, in my opinion. I loved the feeling of disappearing into a lecture of 100 students. That way, I could focus on the material, rather than what the group had to think.


    By the Briggs Standard ™, you’re practically irredeemable. 😉

  17. Husker30

    I agree with Ari’s point about receiving a well-rounded education while also getting to experience the joys and fellowship of college life. I don’t believe that academics have to be sacrificed at the expense of athletics. I attended the University of Nebraska and I know that the athletic department is fully funded by athletic proceeds and donations. Not a single tuition dollar or tax dollar is utilized to support these programs. Furthermore, the football program actually donates money to the academic side each year, so the academics actually benefit from the athletic programs. I realize that Nebraska isn’t exactly Ivy League, but perhaps their model can be a blueprint for all institutions in regards of how to run a university while also having a self-sustaining athletic program.

    Instead of worrying about athletic programs at universities, we should be more worried about what kids are learning prior to entering the colleges. I know that I was totally lost in my first physics class because my high school “teacher/wrestling coach” was a complete joke. If more emphasis was placed on providing a quality education in middle school and high school, perhaps more kids would be prepared for what is being presented in college.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *