ESPN Drops the Ball

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March 31, 2002

 

Capped and tapped: student athlete Shane Battier at his 2001 graduation, a month before his NBA draft

Capped and tapped: student athlete Shane Battier at his 2001 graduation, a month before his NBA draft.

As the men's basketball team prepared for the post-season, university officials weighed the merits of two ESPN programs that examined how Duke applies its admission and academic standards to male basketball players.

One segment, which ran on ESPN's SportsCenter a week before the NCAA tournament began, suggested that Duke has lowered its admission standards for basketball players over the past decade as a way to recruit top players. The following evening, ESPN's Outside the Lines examined the graduation rates of men's college basketball players, particularly African-American players. It noted that thirty-six universities in Division I--including such national powerhouses as Arkansas and Cincinnati--have not graduated a single African-American player in the most recent six-year time frame used by the NCAA to record graduation rates. ESPN contrasted these programs with Duke, which on many occasions has had all the members of its men's basketball team graduate on time. But it went on to question whether Duke's record is indeed so successful.

ESPN interviewed senior associate athletics director Chris Kennedy Ph.D. '79, admissions director Christoph Guttentag, and sociology chair Ken Spenner for the two pieces, but ran only brief snippets of Kennedy's and Guttentag's remarks and none of Spenner's comments.

President Nannerl O. Keohane says that from her talks with Kennedy and Guttentag, she is convinced "there has not been 'slippage' in the admissions standards for our student athletes."

"I am confident that both Christoph and Chris, and others involved in the admissions process for athletes, have a very good sense of which young people can do the work at Duke--and not just graduate, but benefit from the educational experience," Keohane added in the faculty-staff publication Duke Dialogue. "Sometimes their judgment turns out not to have been on the mark, but it doesn't happen often. Sometimes a student athlete gets diverted from what clearly could have been his or her true potential, but that, too, doesn't happen as often as the program seemed to imply."

Kennedy and Guttentag say they do not believe their sides of the story were adequately addressed in the two segments. "I, for one, don't believe that admissions standards have slipped in any significant way," said Kennedy. "I think that, one, more attention is being paid to them than in the past; two, people place too much significance in numbers alone--SAT, GPA--when an admissions decision is a much more complicated matter; and three, the general standards of admission have risen somewhat over the last ten years while athletics standards have remained more or less constant."

Kennedy says the fundamental standards all recruited athletes must meet is, "Can the candidate do satisfactory work at Duke?" While acknowledging that occasional mistakes do occur, Kennedy adds, "Christoph has never compromised the fundamental standard."

Guttentag, who makes the final call on all admissions decisions regarding recruited athletes, says he bases his judgments on a number of factors--not solely on test scores. "When we admit any student, it is because he or she has something significant to add to the Duke community. Over the years, I have been contacted by faculty and staff involved with music, drama, dance, and debate, for example, as they advocate for applicants with particular talents. And, as with athletes, we balance all of these students' qualities and talents, academic and otherwise, in the context of the university's various goals and priorities, in deciding who should be admitted. The university has made a significant commitment to athletics and the admissions process is one of the ways that commitment is expressed."

Outside the Lines suggested that several players have majored in sociology because it offers an easy path to graduation. Sociology's Ken Spenner told Duke Dialogue, "Duke does not have an undergraduate business major. What is offered, administered by the sociology department, is a popular interdisciplinary concentration, similar to a minor, in Markets and Management Studies. It's a logical program to take at Duke if you're interested in business, marketing, or advertising, as many athletes tend to be."

The Markets and Management Program is popular among Duke students; about 14 percent of Duke graduates earn a certificate from the program.

"Also, a good number of sports teams are composed of women, and some sports teams have a stronger representation of members of minority groups," Spenner added. "These social groups may find the subject matter of sociology intrinsically interesting, for example, in courses on social inequality, gender, race and ethnic relations, social networks, the changing nature of the family, and social movements." Athletes might also select social-science majors because their practice and travel schedules make it difficult for them to take courses with lab requirements.

Spenner disputes the show's claim that sociology is easier than other majors. "What constitutes an easy major?" he asked. "In terms of required courses, we're fairly typical of the social-science majors. For example, we have a required statistics course, a required research methodology course, and a required theory course, so about one-third of our major's required courses are not what I think students in general would say are easy. Another way to define easy is grading, and we've looked at our overall grade distribution, how grades assigned in sociology compare with grades college-wide, and we find we're pretty close to the university average."

Others interviewed for the show included Stuart Rojstaczer, an associate professor of earth sciences; Duke guard Jason Williams '02; former players William Avery '99 and Crawford Palmer '92; former admissions officer Rachel Toor; and former Chronicle sports editor Brody Greenwald '01.

"College athletics would be better off if the Dukes of the world admitted what everyone already knows: balancing academics with big time sports just isn't possible under the current rules," Rojstaczer said in Duke Dialogue. "College athletics are in desperate need of major reform. Duke, if it admitted its inability to do the impossible, could lead the way in overhauling the current system. Should Duke do that? There's no doubt in my mind."

In an editorial, The Chronicle said the university should be more candid in releasing information about athletes' impact on academic life and about preferential admissions policies. According to the editorial, "Even if ESPN's segments contained bias, the accusations raised remain serious, and the athletics department and university administrators should forthrightly answer them."

Keohane says Duke, like all other universities, wrestles with the challenge of balancing academic excellence and athletic excellence. "These challenges are sometimes competitive and sometimes mutually reinforcing, both in the lives of student athletes and of other members of the community who delight in their stellar performances and the way they represent our university. I am firmly convinced that Duke does a better job than almost anyone else at this, and I think the evidence shows this, even though we need to be consistently attentive to these challenges to make sure we live up to our ideals and our well-earned reputation."

"The questions they asked and the issues they raised are important, but they aren't new to us," Kennedy says. "We have asked them and thought about them for years. We will continue to do so and continue to be self-critical and to examine and re-examine our role as a part of an educational enterprise. Everybody says this stuff, but I really believe it."