Sunday, December 05, 1999

Why James can't read


Big-money system failed Brooks

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Clem Haskins left the University of Minnesota with a seven-figure settlement. James Brooks left Auburn University without a seventh-grade education.

        Haskins ran a basketball program of startling corruption, rife with academic fraud and institutional negligence. Brooks ran with a football with grace and with guts, until he could no longer outrun his ignorance and his obligations.

        Haskins is sitting pretty thanks to his golden (Gopher) parachute. Brooks has been sitting in jail, unable to pay child support, “barely” literate, flat broke.

        Which man is the real criminal? What is the real crime?

        America's institutions of higher earning have been in the hypocrisy business for so long that it is no longer easy to muster much outrage, but once in a while there's still a scandal worth screaming about.

        Minnesota is one. James Brooks is another. One case is about the cause of academic abuse, the other reflects its too-frequent result. Both cases argue for aggressive reform. Neither can be considered an isolated example.

        Part of the appeal of the annual Army-Navy game is the knowledge that all of the participants can read, write, add, subtract, multiply, divide (and conquer). Not many Division I schools can make that claim about all of their “student-athletes.” All Division I schools are tainted when academic irregularities confirm commonly held suspicions.

        Wayne Yates, formerly the basketball coach at Memphis State, once claimed an academic counselor had told him he “could keep a cockroach eligible for two years.” Andy Katzenmoyer maintained his standing at Ohio State with a cockroach curriculum featuring golf, music appreciation and AIDS awareness.

Exploitation degree
        Athletes unable to write a coherent paragraph or solve a simple math problem are annually maneuvered through the system for purposes of eligibility rather than education. Many of them are educated mainly in exploitation, and too many of them leave campus lacking any serviceable skill save the fleeting physical prowess for which they were recruited.

        Nothing new there. Academic interests have been subverted for the sake of athletics since at least 1908, when the University of Michigan board of regents repudiated university President James Burrill Angell's attempt to limit the scope of football in favor of the big-time agenda of coach Fielding Yost.

        The college sports business has since grown so big that reform-minded academics might as well be tilting at windmills with toothpicks.

        When CBS retained the rights to televise the NCAA Basketball Tournament last month, the network agreed to pay the colleges $6 billion over an 11-year span. This works out to an average of $545 million per year, or roughly $140,000 per unpaid Division I basketball player.

High stakes
        The stakes are so large, and the business so lucrative, that college presidents hired for their fund-raising abilities sometimes avert their eyes from suspicious practices in the athletic department in order to protect their cash flow.

        When Minnesota President Mark Yudof says his basketball program “was corrupt in almost any way one can think about it,” one wonders how he could have been hoodwinked for so long.

        One wonders how tutor Jan Gangelhoff could have written 400 papers on behalf of Haskins' players and get caught only by her own conscience. One wonders why so many Minnesota professors remained silent when they suspected fraud. One wonders how many academics at how many institutions across the country choose to look the other way because it's easier than confronting powerful coaches.

        “There are certain truths in life,” says Marianne Jennings, former associate dean of business at Arizona State. “You don't spit into the wind. You don't tug on Superman's cape. And you don't mess around with star football players.”

        America's colleges should not be exclusionary, but neither should they be exploitive. If any student — athlete or otherwise — is incapable or unwilling to pursue a degree, the interests of academic integrity ought to outweigh the interests of athletic expediency. A student's long-term future ought to be a higher priority than his short-term production on the playing field.

        If James Brooks can't read, it's at least in part because his coaches valued his legs more than his learning. If Auburn University does not share in the blame for Brooks' failure to provide for his children, it surely shares in the shame of his illiteracy.

System errors
        When Dexter Manley of the Washington Redskins tearfully told a Senate committee he had spent four years at Oklahoma State only to leave illiterate, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski told him, “You didn't fail, sir. The system failed you.”

        The system gave us Clem Haskins and it gave us James Brooks. It should give us pause.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        Brooks back to jail Nov. 25 story



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- Why James can't read