Proven: If You’re Athletic, You Don’t Have to Be Smart

In 2008’s least shocking expose, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution dredged the sweat-stained pit of college academics and came up with, essentially, a national “dumb jock” joke.

Hating on athletes is pretty standard practice for the squishy intellectual set, probably because we’ve got a few bones to pick about getting stuffed in lockers and picked last for dodgeball. (As an aside, has anyone actually been stuffed into a locker in the past thirty years? The jocks these days just steal our iPods.)

But, whether we hear it from major newspapers or the bottom of locker no. 104, the news is the same: at the corner of college athletics and college admissions, something is gravely ill.

At the University of Georgia, the average football SAT was 949, which is 239 points behind the average for an undergraduate student at Georgia — and 79 points behind Tech’s football average. The Bulldogs’ average high school GPA was 2.77, or 45th out of 53 teams for which football GPAs were available. Their SAT average ranked them 22nd.

Nationwide, coaches who would never offer a scholarship to a player who was 6 inches shorter or half a second slower than other prospects routinely recruit players whose standardized test scores suggest they’re at a competitive disadvantage in the classroom.

For every school that had football and men’s basketball SAT data available, team members averaged hundreds of points lower than the general student body. And the best average football SAT score in the nation – 1058 at Georgia Tech – would barely be acceptable in your average liberal arts school candidate.

So what’s the problem here? Sure, UConn’s basketball department loved to rep 3.8-toting hoops star Emeka Okafor, but it’s silly to expect the average college athelete to devote the same level of energy to their schoolwork as a more mundane student, right? High-profile athletics takes passion, dedication and time, and if college teams want to compete, they have to make sacrifices.

But this begs the question: why do colleges want to compete so badly? Obvious answer – big athletics equals big money (UConn knows about that, too). Money can translate into high-profile academic gains, and so the admittance of lower-scoring students might just be a pill colleges have to swallow.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really help the diligent students who get shoved out of their first-pick school because another, academically inferior candidate happened to have a good passing arm. And arguing that minority athletes tend to graduate more often than non-minority athletes, as Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt insists, doesn’t hold any water – honestly, what message does that send to minority students? You can succeed in the biased, loaded world of mainstream academia, but only if you Be Like Mike?

And what do those sacrifices mean for the college world as a whole? Ultimately, I don’t think lowering academic standards to boost athletic ones is a fair trade for the American educational system. The former president of the University of Florida complains that “We go out on the field and get beaten by people we couldn’t admit.” Well, as Americans, we’re gonna go out into the world and get beaten by the people we wouldn’t admit – bright, creative, well-educated individuals who would have found their college spots taken by athletes, and entire departments of geniuses who got their funding cut because they couldn’t sell Gatorade.

Athletics can’t be responsible for our national brain drain alone, but they’re sure not helping.

I dunno. Am I pulling a Merlin, complaining pointlessly about “games-mania”? Is this just the dodgeball welts talking? I’m not hating on athletics, and I’m sure that the average college philosophy (or my very own English, even) department isn’t very useful on the world stage, either. But with numbers like these coming out – though I know that SATs can be way off the mark – is it time for a cultural re-focusing? Help me out, here.

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