Joe Nocera of the NYT wrote a column the other day endorsing the idea of allowing football players to “major in football.” The column begins at a lunch here at UNC. I was at that lunch, and Nocera’s claims are broader than what was actually said at the luncheon.
several of the professors complained that whenever an athlete enrolled in their classes, they got a letter from the athletic department asking them, in effect, to go easy on the player.
There were only three professors there, as far as I remember. The letter in question requests that the instructor allow the student-athlete to be absent for scheduled athletic events, in keeping with university policy. It definitely does not ask that we go easy on the player or change standards in any way. We did discuss at the lunch the fact that the letter reveals the student’s status as an athlete, separates him/her symbolically from the rest of the class, and thereby suggests that the student may need or deserve special treatment, but this is certainly not in the text of the letter.
“All the freshman football players take Swahili as their language requirement,” [former UNC football player Deunta] Williams said. Why? Because the athletic department tutors are strong in Swahili….With their phony majors and low expectations, they send the unmistakable message to the athletes that they don’t care what happens after their eligibility expires.
To my knowledge, UNC does not have any “phony majors.” Low expectations are certainly a problem, and not limited to athletes or to UNC. The firestorm over Swahili is complicated. Williams definitely did tell us at the lunch that football players are steered toward Swahili and Portuguese because these are the languages for which athletics-department tutors were available. This is certainly a problem: athletes should have the opportunity to fulfill their academic requirements with the full range of intellectual activity at the University, not just those for which there are hand-picked tutors. And it is certainly a travesty that we don’t provide the opportunity for all students–athletes emphatically included–to take full advantage of the academic resources of the University. But the implication that Swahili is inherently useless or fake is false and inappropriate. I also think there’s a racialized implication here: Swahili is an African language and the image of the academically-struggling football player is definitely of an African-American student.
All that said, I think the idea of “majoring in football” isn’t so crazy. Making it similar to majoring in drama or music might make sense, and in similar fashion majors might study the history, practice, theory, business, etc., of the sport. But I don’t think it solves the problems Nocera raises, because most serious universities (including UNC) require substantial academic success outside the major. Nocera seems to expect that such a major would insulate football players from the rest of academic life and “focus almost exclusively on the thing they are passionate about.” But we would not allow that of any other major, and we shouldn’t do so for football.