College Athletics: Their Pressure on the High Schools

A native of Illinois who served for sixteen years as superintendent of the Oak Park and River Forest High School, EUGENE YOUNGERT first became aware of the practices and pressures which he here condemns when he was a member of the Intercollegiate Athletic Committee of the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, He has recently been working as senior associate to Dr. James Bryant Conant on the Study of the American High School.

THE ATLANTIC

BY EUGENE YOUNGERT

A UNIVERSITY professor was talkingto some people from a town in the Middle West. He said with asperity, “Your high school does not prepare its students for college work.” Then, he used as an example in proof of his statement a boy who had gone to the university from that high school and been flunked out for poor academic work. But the professor did not put the blame where it belonged — namely, on his own university.

What were the facts in the case? In a high school graduating class of 157, the boy in question was number 155, third from the bottom of the class. In high school, the lad had neither intention nor desire to go to college. He had no business to go to college. He had not taken a college preparatory course. He could not get a college entrance recommendation from his high school. But he was a superb athlete, and that meant that he was desirable to many colleges. He was “worked on” by representatives from several universities, and the one lucky enough to get him was the professor’s university.

However, in his freshman year it became clear that the boy was not up to university football. Therefore he was dropped from the freshman squad. The athletics officers demonstrated that they had no further use for him, so he was flunked out of college, and soon after that the professor was using the boy as illustration for his statement that “your high school does not prepare its students for college work.”

This incident is taken from an official report of a committee of one of our regional associations that accredits colleges and secondary schools. Now, let me relate a case told to me in a letter that I have just received from the principal of a high school in the Eastern part of our country. I shall tell the story directly from the letter, but omitting names of colleges and calling the boy Sonny.

“Until Sonny came along, our quiet little school was virtually unknown to the great majority of collegiate institutions. However, thanks to this lad, we became the crossroads meeting place for college admissions officers and coaches.

“Sonny was a lad whose I.Q. remained a steadfast 92-95, and we never considered him of college caliber. But what an athlete he was! It was a shame to see the devices a host of coaches and some admissions officers used to try to buy this boy. College people came, literally, from all over the country to get Sonny for dear old Alma Mater. There were free round trips to visit campuses, with parties thrown in for atmosphere. Appropriately enough, the representatives of one university interviewed Sonny in a famous New York night club.

“Sonny finally went to a university where he received a full ‘free ride’ scholarship, plus the following perquisites: private tutors to keep him passing in his courses, a campus job for his father and a low-rent apartment for the family, and spending money for Sonny. But Sonny lost interest in trying to study even the diluted program he was asked to follow, and early in the second year he left college and joined the army.

“The sad part of this tale is that we had to work like the dickens to get highly qualified, intelligent boys into the very colleges and universities that were vying with one another for our Sonny and his 92-95 I.Q.”

If these cases were exceptions there would be little point in telling them here. But they are not, as the evidence on my desk bears out. Nor were the colleges that sought the boys only those known popularly as “athletic mills.” In fact, among them were some that are distinguished for academic excellence. The recruiting letters of athletic departments of some of the universities would be good models for the admissions offices of those same universities. I wish that admissions officers would as assiduously seek information about academic ability as athletics officers seek information about athletic ability. I have before me some recruiting letters turned over to me by the boys who received them. The information requested about athletic prowess is fascinating, as is also the extent to which the recruiting goes: “List names and addresses of football players whom [sic] you feel would make good university prospects”; “Name the most outstanding linemen and backs against whom you played last fall.” Incidentally, the boys who received these letters had not asked for them.

THERE are two major ways in which high schools are hurt by the athletic pressure in colleges and universities. First there are the recruiting and scholarship procedures, and secondly the practices of professionalized athletics that are carried into high schools by coaches who have used professional tactics in college.

A young boy in his senior year in high school received twenty-six scholarship offers to play football in colleges and universities. One of the offers, which I saw, was a telegram so funny as to be laughable, and yet so honest in its commercial appeal as to be highly interesting: “Accept no offers until you see ours.” This telegram was from a university that year in and year out fields one of the formidable football machines of our country. Think what that kind of recruitment can do to a seventeen-year-old’s sense of values, especially when the offers are followed by persistent visits from college representatives, who avidly seek the boy’s favor through financial lures far greater than those offered to the academically talented students in the class.

Here is a quotation from a letter to a high school principal. “We should like to have the boy come to our campus for a weekend and get the feel of our athletic facilities. If you will bring him to us, we will invite you and your wife, your athletic director and his wife, and the boy’s mother and father to spend the weekend here as our guests. We shall provide first-class transportation and campus hospitality.” A seventeen-year-old would have to have his feet pretty firmly planted not to have his common sense warped by that kind of talk.

Is an institution interested in a boy’s sense of values when it engages in this sort of recruiting activity? Or, isn’t the interest in what the boy can do for the institution and for those who are seeking his services? I remember a basketball coach from a college whose basketball team is always one of the pacesetters. He was out on his annual talent search and had stopped in at the school I long served as principal to ask whether the athletics department had any prospects to suggest. In fun, one of our men asked whether he would like the name of a strong football star, to which he replied, “Well, look, alter all, I’ve got my own job to protect.” There is about as casual a definition of exploitation as we could hope to see!

I do not mean that coaches do not have strong feelings of affection for the boys who make their teams. Quite to the contrary, I know that they often do have those feelings. But in the recruiting activity I see nothing but exploitation. Furthermore, I believe that that is what a college faculty would call it had it the courage to make an independent study of athletic recruitment, beginning with the machinery for uncovering prospects and proceeding to the recruitment letters, interviews, and the pressure that eventually bring the boys to the campus and its teams.

It has been my privilege to talk with a large number of men broadly experienced in college athletics administration. Without exception they have said that recruitment and its scholarship bait are by all odds the major problem in college athletics practice. All that one needs to do is follow the disciplining procedure of the NCAA to realize that this expert judgment of the serious nature of the recruitment problem is correct. In the face of this fact, it is hard to understand how college faculties — the most powerful single force in a college — can ignore athletic recruiting and scholarships as though they were not their problems but only the president’s. Certainly, they are the faculty’s problems, since all admissions must go through the admissions office and since the admissions office is responsible to the faculty for those whom it submits for instruction and whom it recommends for scholarship aid because of ability to perform at a level worthy of scholarship aid.

COLLEGE recruitment of athletes is hurtful to the high schools because of its effect both on the athletes and on the student body. I have spoken about what the bidding for boys must do to their sense of values. I could write at some length of what athletic scholarships cause high school athletes to do when they know they must get the attention of the talent scouts. But I want here to include a word about the cynicism that infects the students as a whole when they see favoritism and free ride scholarships bestowed on boys whose classroom work has been mediocre. Under such circumstances, high school students cannot be blamed if they think that we are shedding crocodile tears today in our wailing about the lack of intellectual vigor in our secondary schools.

The argument commonly advanced in defense of free ride athletic scholarships is that modern football is so complex a game, and must be so perfectly learned in order to meet normal competition, that players have no time in which to earn any of the money needed to cover their college expenses. This argument assumes that players and their families have no means of their own and that it is good practice that a college recreational game be so professionalized as to need all of an athlete’s spare time and even some that he might well be giving to his classes (presumably his principal reason for being in college). So generally accepted is this notion that college athletics should be on a professional level that a wag has said, “No self-respecting college coach or alumnus, and not many college presidents, would be satisfied with a college football team that played like a bunch of amateurs.”

It is this professionalization of college athletics, and the elimination of the amateur spirit from the college game, that brings me to the second way in which I believe that intercollegiate athletics are having a harmful influence upon high schools and high school sport. What I am thinking of now is the infusion of the “pro” attitude and spirit into high school athletics, and the shady practices that such infusion carries in its wake—practices that are shady from the point of view of the amateur’s sportsmanship code. To quite an extent, high school coaches are the product of professionalized college sport, and they tend to coach as they were coached. Here, I do not write disparagingly of coaches as men. I have known a lot of them, and with few exceptions they are fine men personally. But I agree with what G. W. (Sec) Taylor said of them when he made his presidential address to the Football Writers Association: “Coaches have their job to do, and for the most part they do those jobs exactly the way that is expected of them by the president, the faculty, and the public. They are simply caught in the whirlpool of pressure athletics and are helpless to do anything about it until the college presidents and faculties give them some help.” In this quotation, Mr. Taylor explained the situation, but he did not condone it.

Very few remember the sportsmanship code: “Honorable victory; respect for a worthy opponent; no personal or team advantage, and no disadvantage to the opponents, through dishonorable and unfair means.” Ideally, this should be the heart of the athletics program in college and school. It is the reflection of the purpose of an educational institution — of the integrity upon which the entire program of a college or school must rest if society is to be served well. It is the greatest lesson that college and school athletics can teach. But the code is breaking down, first on the college level, and then, by the example of the colleges, on the high school level. When victory is demanded at any price, the means to victory, whether honorable or dishonorable, sportsmanlike or unsportsmanlike, becomes a matter of relative indifference.

A well-known college basketball coach was lecturing to high school basketball coaches. Among other things, he told how his team defeated one of the highest-rated teams of the year. He said that his real obstacle was the star forward on the opposing team and that the route to victory lay in tempting that man into the folds necessary to cause his ejection from the game. And he taught it as sound game tactics that although it took deliberate fouling by four successive players, they tricked their victim into the necessary fouls, got rid of him, and then won the game. Now, I suspect that that could be called a species of respect for a worthy opponent, but I doubt that it is the kind of respect envisaged in the code. Furthermore, it conflicts pretty directly with the clause that forbids “dishonorable and unfair means.” It is the kind of bad practice that under the pro spirit is transmuted into “smart ball,” and I submit that it has no place in college or high school sport.

Another illustration ol bad practice is the injury feigned in order to get another time-out period to give more time for the one additional play that may win the game or at least stave off defeat. After one well-remembered college game in which that device was used, cries of “smart football” were legion, although some angered sports writers called it dirty ball. We in the high schools do not want this kind of play in our games, or anything in the spirit of “win at any price, by any means,” even though our elders by example portray it as sensible play. But it is hard to resist the pressure of intercollegiate sport, which we sometimes have to do if we are to convince new coaches that we actually want our high school teams coached to revere the sportsmanship code.

A third bad practice is one that some of us in high schools call “the exalted spotter.” Some years ago, a professional football league coach placed an assistant on top of the stands to telephone reports to the bench on the formations of the opponent and how to outmaneuver them. Were I in the professional league, I’d do the same thing, for I would have to win games in order to attract a heavy gate. Many college coaches who needed to draw heavy gates quickly adopted the exalted spotter technique. Apparently, they have little respect for the ability of quarterbacks to assess the field and call the plays; or perhaps the pressure is so great that they dare not release to an underling the pivotal responsibility of calling plays. But now the exalted spotter has entered the high school lists, and in high school and college the game is taken away from the players and directed by the tactician on the bench. Thus a boy is denied one of the main benefits ol athletics: the opportunity, on his own, to think last and independently and to make decisions as the game develops on the field.

These three examples, out of many, are not isolated instances of pro college practices that are hurting high school athletics; they are illustrations of a spirit that is inimical to the sportsmanship code. Particularly objectionable is the insistence that every team must win all of its games, and that the coach who cannot achieve that result should be fired. Bad team practices are bound to result from such an impossible condition.

“Caught in the whirlpool of pressure athletics,” as Mr. Taylor expressed it, coaches have done what they might have been expected to do. Asked to win or leave, they have demanded more money, both to compensate for strain and to serve as insurance between hirings and firings, Furthermore, they have gone out to find or buy players with whom to win. The strange thing is that some bad athletics policies have become so respectable with use that the subsidization of college athletes, to such an extent as almost to constitute their employment as athletes, is often defended as the bedrock prerequisite of amateur sport!

Is THERE any hope in the college athletics situation? Yes, there is a lot of hope, if the one force capable of doing something about the situation will stop ignoring it and actively insist upon its correction. That force is the college faculty. The athletics situation is primarily a faculty situation. As I said earlier, it is agreed that recruitment and subsidization constitute the major problems in college athletics, and these eventually are matters for the admissions office. Here is where the faculty comes in, for it is to the faculty that the admissions office is responsible for those whom it recommends, both for instruction and for scholarship aid. The NCAA and some athletic conferences are doing what they can, but they face two hard facts: 1) some colleges do not want reform, and will cheat; 2) bad practices have been frozen into conference codes. The real cure must take place in the individual college.

What can the faculty do? It can do what it should have done long ago. It can adopt a resolution, the enforcement of which it can demand and, if necessary, police. The resolution would say about six things. There should be no substandard admissions. All scholarships should be granted on the one basis of apparent ability to do college work on the scholarship level recommended by the faculty. Scholarship amounts should be based on need. Job opportunities should be genuine jobs, and pay should be regulated according to the accepted local scale. There should be no snap courses designed to favor any particular group of students. All students should be evaluated on the same general basis: their course work in classes. Of course, the resolution can say whatever else needs to be said to cure the local situation. If a college faculty really means business, administrative officers will think hard before they will deny a resolution of the faculty. But the catch is that the faculty must mean business.

In my experience, athletes in general are an intelligent group of boys. They would not and they should not be discriminated against under the recommended resolution. On their merit as students, they would win their fair share of scholarships and other financial help. I know that college athletics, if they were fairly and firmly handled, would become highly respected as a student activity. They would no longer be an enterprise run for financial profit, public relations, protection of vested interests, and as a sop for the alumni.