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Context Florida: Ed Moore: Colleges must help athletes succeed in the classroom

Thursday, January 30, 2014

At the University of Wisconsin a significant number of high profile former athletes have seen their lives descend in a spiral of poverty, drugs, and repeated police contacts. After making millions for the athletic department, the coaches and athletic directors, they have become dispensable commodities. Unskilled, uneducated and unwanted. I am not saying that these former athletes are merely victims; they are co-agents in their fall, but the sports establishment failed them miserably when they could have changed the course of their lives.”

That passage was taken from an online comment to an article in the “The Chronicle of Higher Education.”

The article was about research at the University of North Carolina focusing on the literacy of athletes enrolled at UNC and playing Division I sports.

The study’s findings are both sad and alarming. They bring to mind the recent social media kerfuffle about how some athletes respond to reporters’ questions, particularly right after a game has concluded.

Of course, some people ask if it really matters whether a professional athlete reads and speaks well. For a pro, you may think it may not matter, but it does. How can one get through life as a functional illiterate. Besides, few college players ever make a living as a professional athlete.

Do these statistics in the UNC study matter to fans: among the 183 athletes who were studied for an eight-year period (apparently all admitted under special academic standards), 60 percent read between fourth­- and eighth­-grade levels and 8 to 10 percent were functionally illiterate.

Most universities have programs to assist these “student-athletes” with their academic pursuits. Often graduation rates of scholarship athletes exceed those of regular, non-athletic scholarship students.

Yet I was struck by the words of the scholar doing this study, Mary C. Willingham, who grew up in the neighborhoods of the impoverished south side of Chicago. She lived amongst a sea of social inequity, knowing full well the challenges both excelling in sports and academics while hoping to escape from the relentless grip of generations of poverty.

“It would be like dropping me off on the football field, giving me a jersey, and telling me to just figure it out,” she said.

Not every athlete has issues with academics. Some excel on both the field and in the classroom. Some, like Myron Rolle at Florida State University, have so many talents that they must choose between a career in sports or other potentially lucrative careers, rather than struggling to read a sixth grade text. Some like Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, an FSU football star, finish college armed with both baccalaureate and master’s degrees.

Unfortunately though, there are many who are ill-equipped for college academics who have been admitted to college because they are fleet, large, strong and entertaining.

That is where our concern should lie when we hear these sideline interviews that make us uncomfortable. These “student-athletes” deserve every chance to succeed.

They also deserve to have their academic – as well as athletic — skills honed and improved, receiving as much attention as their athletic prowess. They will spend far more of their lives in a non-athletic world.

The UNC study raises a lot of questions. It should also be a wakeup call for all of us about what really matters in life.

As the old saying goes, “Reading is Fundamental.”

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