A few weeks ago, the Hawklets, of Rockhurst High School outside of Kansas City, beat the Mehlville Panthers 28-9 to win the Missouri Class 6 High School Football Championship and complete a perfect, 13–0 season.
After going undefeated and winning the State Championship in the largest division in the state, one would presume the Rockhurst football team would enjoy an unprecedented amount of media coverage and exposure.
But across Missouri, much of the focus has been across the state, on Parkway West High School phenom Blaine Gabbert.
Gabbert—the top-rated high school recruit in Missouri and the number-one quarterback prospect in the nation, according to ESPN.com—is a physical specimen. At 6'5," 230 pounds, and running the 40 in 4.6 seconds, Gabbert has the size and speed to play quarterback at the college and professional level.
However, the reason for the media coverage has little to do with Gabbert's success on the playing field—he separated his shoulder his senior season and played in only five games—and everything to do with his oral commitment to play football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
After spurning the in-state Missouri Tigers to play for then-Head Coach Bill Callahan and Nebraska, Gabbert had second thoughts. Nebraska had just lost in blowouts to USC, Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M, NU athletic director Steve Pederson was fire, and the evidence was overwhelming evidence that Callahan would be fired as well.
With so much uncertainty in Lincoln, Gabbert reneged on his oral commitment, and shortly thereafter verbally committed to Missouri.
Gabbert's decision created a firestorm of coverage that was featured in major media publications and online recruiting services such as Rivals.com and Scout.com.
Quickly, the change of heart of a 17-year-old had become front-page news. Stories like Gabbert's are one prime example of how strong of an influence college football recruiting has.
The ethics of seeking out and recruiting high school students have been hotly debated. With the increased exposure of recruiting on the Internet, 16- and 17-year old students are immediately thrust into the limelight. From Rivals to Scout, from MaxPreps to Tom Lemming's Top 100, the commercialization of college football recruiting has reached a unprecedented high.
But this increased exposure can cause problems. As ESPN The Magazine writer and author of Meat Market Bruce Feldman put it:
"The Internet has made an enormous difference in recruiting. More kids are getting seen by more people, and with that, there is so much more information and misinformation out there.
"The downside is that it really has made celebrities out of many recruits who just simply aren't ready to handle the attention, and you get kids with a really inflated sense of worth. And because of that attention now many boosters and fans are trying to get to those kids, and so it's a messy situation."
Now high school football can even be seen on national television. This past year, there were over a dozen nationally-televised high school games on ESPN. Each of these games featured some of the best college prospects in the country. While Gabbert's Parkway West team was not as good as Rockhurst's, Parkway's games were televised, because everyone wanted to see this prodigious quarterback.
There are also numerous All-Star games that make it to television, including the ESPNU All-American Game and the U.S. Army All-American Game in San Antonio, Texas. With all of these methods of promotion, it is easy for college football fans to get acquainted with their schools' prospects before they play a single down at the college level.
With so much emphasis on the student-athlete as an athlete, the question must be asked: Is the college football recruiting system doing enough for the student?
Recruiting is defined as the process whereby college coaches seek out and add new players to their roster of student-athletes each offseason. In the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), college coaches are allowed to offer 85 full scholarships to players on their teams. In any particular year, a maximum of 25 new scholarships may be offered to a recruiting class.
Recruiters look for that rare combination of size and athleticism that translates well to the college game. In linemen, recruiters look for size, strength, and agility. In wide receivers and defensive backs, they look for size, speed, flexibility, and hands. In addition to the physical tools needed for quarterbacks (size, arm strength, precision, and quickness), recruiters look for cerebral athletes who are adept at making quick reads and snap judgments.
With regard to potential quarterbacks, strong academics are often a strong indicator of success. For most other positions, a solid academic resume is much less important. In fact, one of the major roadblocks in recruiting is getting students with poor academic resumes past the NCAA Clearinghouse and admitted to the desired school.
The NCAA Clearinghouse is an organization that works with the NCAA to determine a student's eligibility for athletic participation in his or her first year of college enrollment. This eligibility is necessary only for students participating in Division I or Division II athletics.
The NCAA Clearinghouse establishes a set of requirements needed for student-athletes to participate in varsity sports in these divisions. Although there is no minimum GPA or SAT/ACT score needed to pass the Clearinghouse in Division I, there is a ratio between the two which must be met.
For example, if a student-athlete has a 2.5 GPA, then he would need either an 820 on his SAT or a 17 on his ACT to qualify. Starting on August 1, 2008, at least 16 core classes (math, science, English, etc.) must be taken as well.
Once the student-athletes pass the Clearinghouse, individual universities' admissions boards decide whether to accept their applications.
While there are no concrete statistics on admission standards for football players, schools generally have a minimum GPA and test score the student-athlete must achieve; for example, at Stanford all football players must have a GPA over 3.0 and a score of 1200 on the SAT test. Although this type of "grade floor" is used at some schools, there is no such policy at Florida International University or the University of Mississippi, for example.
At FIU, all that is required for admission is that a student-athlete pass through the NCAA Clearinghouse. Even if the student-athlete in question fails to meet the regular admission standards of the school, a clause dictates that FIU athletic director Pete Garcia has the final say on the matter.
At Mississippi, admission standards are gauged on a case-by-case basis. This can explain the admission of junior offensive lineman Michael Oher to the University.
Michael Oher is a West Memphis native who grew up in extreme poverty. He bounced from foster home to foster home, often attending multiple schools in one year. Despite Oher's prowess on the football field, he wound up with a poor academic record and could not pass through the Clearinghouse.
However, all was not lost.
Michael Oher and his family were referred to the now infamous BYU Online Courses. These types of courses—which are taken online and completed in 10 days—can substitute for poor grades on a transcript.
In the spring of his senior year, Michael Oher raised his GPA from a 2.05 to a 2.65 in a matter of months, and qualified to play D-I football. He also went to a doctor and was diagnosed as Learning Disabled, allowing Oher unlimited time on his ACT exam.
Michael Oher is not the first athlete whose academic resume has been enhances at the last minute. BYU's "Character Education Courses" have helped improve shoddy academic records for several athletes over the years—but at the very least the courses are informative and teach character.
Football programs have been routinely criticized for admitting students that have not met the academic standards of their schools. They have also been criticized for shepherding their student-athletes into a few specific areas of study—often referred to as "jock majors."
At the University of Alabama, 26 percent of football players major in General Studies, as opposed to two percent of all undergraduates. At Auburn, football players are 35 times more likely to major in Sociology than other students.
Even at Michigan—universally regarded as one of the top public universities in the United States—20 percent of football players major in General Studies.
Recently, a few prominent figures have spoken out against these questionable relaltionships in athletics and academia. Former University of Michigan star quarterback and current Head Coach of Stanford University Jim Harbaugh has had a few choice words for his former athletic department.
During his time at Michigan, Harbaugh said, "[The athletic department] has ways to get borderline guys in and, when they're in, they steer them to courses in sports communications. [The players are] adulated when they're playing, but when they get out, the people who adulated them won't hire them."
While the pursuit of the student-athlete for his athletic prowess may be strong, Harbaugh suggests the same dedication is not directed toward academic affairs.
Alabama Law Professor Gene Marsh certainly agrees with these assessments. Disregarding the common argument that football players have an overwhelming time commitment to their sport, Marsh counters that "people who say it's okay to end up with athletes huddled in particular majors because of their time demands don't understand reality. There are many students working many hours a week in part-time jobs, and they do not cluster into easy majors."
College football is an extremely profitable industry. 42 percent of head coaches in college football make over one million dollars per year. The highest valued football programs (Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State, Georgia, Michigan, and LSU) are worth almost $100 million apiece.
For these reasons, colleges generally do everything in their power to help the student-athlete into their school. Road blocks such as academics can be assuaged through easier admission standards and grade manipulation. After student-athletes are admitted, academic advisors tend to steer them in a narrow direction, as evidenced by the concentration of athletes in one or a few particular majors.
This process has contributed to the poor graduation rates of football players. Of all of the members of the Associated Press Top 25, only five schools (Virginia Tech, Florida, BC, Clemson, and Cincinnati) met or exceeded the average four-year graduation rate of students in Division I.
Teams at the top of the college football spectrum are lagging behind.
All the data is not negative, however. Certain schools have excellent tutoring programs for their student-athletes. Schools such as the University of Kentucky offer a program called the Center for Academic and Tutorial Services (C.A.T.S.)—a service provided solely for the Kentucky student-athlete, so it can focus more upon the individual demands of these students.
But aside from specialized programs like C.A.T.S., student-athletes may not adequately receive enough educational support—which is paramount for those students who entered college with marginal academic records.
The NCAA mission statement reads: "Our purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount."
While the NCAA's intent of maintaining a quality academic experience seems genuine, I can't help but wonder whether this same mission is wholly shared by its universities—especially in regards to football.
While there are isolated forms of educational support for the college football player, it seems like the most rigorous part of some student-athletes' educational experience is just gaining admission.
If I ever interviewed a top college prospect like Blaine Gabbert, my main question would not concern his expectations as a Missouri Tiger, or his prospects of starting as a true freshman.
Instead, I would ask him what he planned on majoring in.
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