Posted by Adam Jacobi
Back in April, the Division I Board of Directors passed a rule change that required football players to pass nine credit hours in the fall semester in order to avoid a four-game suspension the following year. The rule had been six credit hours before this year.
As Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News reports, that rule change is causing some consternation within the SEC and the rest of the NCAA. Here's how Solomon put it:
At the SEC spring meetings, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he opposed the new nine-hour rule. However, he acknowledged it's "not really" too much to ask players to pass nine fall credits.
"Most of our guys are pretty good academically," Spurrier said. "Hopefully, we'll find a way to make sure they pass the nine hours. That's what you have to do."
Find a way.
Spurrier didn't say or suggest South Carolina will cheat. But those words should send chills to true educators because they reflect how the eligibility game gets played.
For pockets of football players -- some, but certainly not all -- academic requirements mean playing a shell game. Go to this major, go to that professor; go to this class, go to that tutor.
Find a way to keep playing on Saturdays.
Sure, it seems just slightly unfair that Solomon implies Spurrier will resort to cheating and then backs right off it. But this is the SEC we're talking about; half-jokes about whether a coach will cheat are standard procedure.
That's a good reason to oppose requiring 12 credit hours, say, because let's face it, things happen in college. Two classes out of five being poor fits is unlikely, but in a class of 25, it could conceivably happen for a few players per year. That results in fewer players on the field, and that negatively affects the product on the field, and nobody wants that, right?
That's the argument of someone with a purely cynical view of the schools' role in college football, though, and there's a difference between an argument and a good argument.
As long as the schools are the ones handing out scholarships, they should be allowed to act with the schools' core interests in mind, and there is no way that allowing an athlete to earn six credit hours in a semester and then maintain his eligibility unfettered (so long as his grades were in order, of course) going forward is in a school's best interests. They take certain risks admitting athletes in the first place (though APR figures show those risks are generally overblown by average commenters), and allowing those athletes to maintain a scholarship while earning 40 percent as many credits as a typical four-year student doesn't make the schools look as if they take those risks seriously.
Also, a little real talk here. I personally struggled during my first year at a certain university (which one it was isn't important to the story at hand). I got back on track by taking six credit hours in one semester. It was pointed out to me by one well-meaning family member during a come-to-Jesus talk that if I had still been playing football, I wouldn't even be academically eligible by taking those six hours, and he was right: I wouldn't have been. At no point during that talk or thereafter did I think that was unfair to athletes. The fact of the matter is, they should at least be on a path toward five-year graduation, and allowing semesters with six credit hours isn't a serious step toward that goal.
I am a bit of a college football libertarian, as my previous post would indicate, so it would seem a little incongruous that I would turn around and advocate for stricter standards and enforcement when it comes to student-athlete eligibility. But considering the extremely low level of college football players who go on to the NFL and make enough money to last them even five years after retirement, it is a very difficult argument to suggest that allowing a football player to receive basically minimal collegiate instruction while he sacrifices his physical well-being for the good of the school's football program is in that young man's best interests.
So, yes, I would like to see more stringent standards for directing these young men toward earning degrees.
The NCAA already investigates academic fraud, and that should absolutely continue. But the nebulous threat of academic fraud when it comes to forcing football players to earn nine flippin' hours in one semester should not act as a deterrent for common-sense academic standards.
It's time to hold student-athletes to reasonable standards of academic progress, and if those student-athletes want to cheat about it, the NCAA can deal with it then; assuming those student-athletes are incapable of following those rules without cheating (which is what a failure to observe the new rule change would amount to) is an assumption from the inside that the entire NCAA is corrupt, and if we're at that point, then quibbling about credit hours is the least of the NCAA's worries.