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Wake Forest: Keeping the Student in Student-Athlete?

Note: This article appeared in the Old Gold and Black in late January 2006. However, 270 words were cut out, and this is the original version of the article.

From the outside looking in, it certainly appears that the University’s athletes are getting the job done in the classroom.

For the 2003-2004 academic year, the first year since the NCAA instituted the Academic Progress Rating system, Wake Forest student-athletes ranked 32nd out of 328 Division I schools. The University’s athletes graduated at a rate of 76% over the last four years, compared to a 60% rate among all division I programs. At the start of this school year, every single athlete at the University was academically eligible to compete.

Without question, the University’s athletes are getting the job done on the field. The University ranked 37th in Division I in the 2004-2005 Academy Directors Cup, which measures a school’s overall athletic success, with no regard for academics.

But is this combination of athletic prowess and high academic standards really possible? With corruption running rampant in many other college athletic programs, there is certainly reason to investigate whether Wake Forest athletes are really being held to the same academic standards as other students.

Two Jobs

In an article published in the L.A. Times in 2004, former University of California-Berkely football player Chris Murphy was quoted as saying life as a student-athlete was like having “two-full time jobs.”

According to most Wake Forest athletes, that assessment is dead-on here as well. “Rough,” junior football player Arby Jones said of his workload. “It’s the time management, with how hard these classes are, and having to go to practice, and go to lift, early lift, and getting about 5 hours of sleep a night if you have a test.”

During the season, athletes in any sport can have up to 20 hours per week of mandatory sport-related activity. However, adding in the road trips and “voluntary” workouts that go along with many sports, the actual amount of time taken out of an athletes schedule can be as many as 40 hours per week during the season.

Junior soccer player Elizabeth Remy said she feels that her academic workload is just like most other students on campus, but finding time for studies is typically more difficult than it is for regular students.

“It’s just the amount of time that you have to focus on (academics),” Remy said. “You just have to manage your time a lot better.”

Remy added that most athletes are attending Wake Forest primarily because of their sport, and consequently, many are not expecting the academics to be as rigorous as they are. Blake Lingruen, a former football player who graduated in December 2004, said he was surprised as a freshman.

“It by all means exceeded what I expected,” Lingruen said via email. “When I first came to Wake, I was out of my element. I was by no means prepared for what was to come.”

Athletes at the University frequently make use of tutors on campus. Tutors are compensated by Student-Athlete services and are free for athletes, and thus some teams require their younger players to attend tutoring sessions.

Susan Carter, a senior Mathematical Economics major, has tutored over 20 athletes in the past year.

“They’re all very focused,” Carter said of the athletes she has tutored. “They all realize they need to get their work done. They ask questions. I think rather than regular students, they don’t have as much time, so tutoring is an opportunity to work on the subject, whether they have work in it or not.”

Staying Out of the Spotlight

Whether or not the University has been treating its athletes equally, it has certainly avoided any major academic scandals involving the athletic program. Across the country, reports of academic fraud at Division I schools have been turning up with frightening regularity over the past few years.

In one of the most ridiculous incidences of academic fraud, the University of Georgia recently paid a heavy price for a class taught in 2001 by assistant basketball coach Jim Harrick, Jr. The class, Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball, was made up almost entirely of basketball players and included questions on the final exam such as, “How many points does a 3-point shot account for in a Basketball game?” According to a Los Angeles Times article, every student in the class received an A, and the NCAA concluded that Harrick, Jr. “fraudulently awarded grades of A to three men's basketball student-athletes.”

His father, head coach Jim Harrick, Sr., who won a National Championship at UCLA, was suspended by the school in 2004 and resigned shortly afterwards.

In 2004, South Carolina fired its senior associate athletics director, Tom Perry, after Perry was “named in all but one of the five major NCAA violations, many of which involved academic fraud,” according to an article in the Knight Ridder Business Tribune. South Carolina lost a total of four scholarships and was put on three years probation by the NCAA.

Wake Forest has even managed to stay clear of damaging allegations of fraud. In 2003, the ex-girlfriend of former Missouri basketball player Ricky Clemons told the Kansas City Star that she had seen tutors writing papers for Clemons and giving him completed assignments. Maurice Clarett, who left Ohio State in 2003 amidst allegations that he received improper benefits, claimed later that he had gotten “improper academic assistance,” according to USA Today.

The NCAA did not punish either school for these claims of academic fraud, but the credibility of both programs took a substantial hit.

Too Much Hand-Holding?

The University has kept itself clear of trouble with the NCAA and the court of public opinion, but the question of whether student-athletes really face the same academic rigors as regular students is not as cut and dry.

Dr. Angela Hattery, a Sociology professor at the University, has consistently dealt with athletes in her classes, partly because she says athletes make her classes more diverse and provide unique perspectives. Although she will often work to accommodate athletes’ busy schedules, the athletes always have to complete the same amount of work as the rest of her students. She said that there are professors on campus who will cut athletes some slack, but there are also plenty who dislike athletics in general and will make the work unfairly hard for athletes.

She says that she has never been pressured by anyone in the athletic department to change a student’s grade, but she says she often has trouble with coaches not allowing players to cooperate with her assignments. For instance, she says often defers a volunteering assignment for basketball players until after the season ends; however, even in the off-season, it can be extremely difficult for her to get the team to allow time for the players to complete her assignment.

Hattery said one of her biggest concerns with the treatment of athletes by the University is the fact that Student-Athlete Services often “holds their hands” for too long. Earl Smith, also a Sociology professor at Wake, described the support from Student-Athlete Services as “mind-boggling.” Many athletes are pre-registered for classes every semester even through their senior year, and Jones said that athletes are often required to attend mandatory study hall sessions for up to 10 hours per week.

“I think they need to wean them off of this hand-holding,” Hattery said. “The University should help them prepare to leave as an adult.”

Lingruen, the former football player, agreed.

“I have no negative memories of the academic aspect while at Wake,” he said. “But I did feel that we were never given enough respect to handle our own lives from the administration.”

Jane Caldwell, director of Student-Athlete Services, disagreed with the term “hand-holding.”

“I think this is a misconception,” Caldwell said. “We encourage faculty members and departments to meet with us. We have an open door policy and encourage communication with our staff and with our tutors.

“The faculty often recommend tutors to us and we try when possible to use their recommendations. I think the majority of the faculty members recognize that our office is necessary in providing support to student-athletes.”

Tougher Than Most

Still, it seems clear that the University has held its athletes up to a much higher academic standard than most other major-conference teams. Zac Taylor, now the Nebraska starting quarterback, transferred from Wake Forest in 2003.

“My workload while I was at Wake was often times overwhelming,” Taylor said via email. “My professors were pretty tough graders as well, and I don’t ever remember taking an ‘easy’ class in the two years that I was there.

“It doesn't compare to Nebraska in any way. I can go through several weeks of classes without doing any work, and as this semester comes to an end, I have written two 6-8 page papers so far, with one due as finals roll around.”

Sociology professor Smith, who used to teach at Washington State, said that although some loopholes exist at Wake Forest for athletes, the curriculum here is not as flexible as it is at many “sport factories,” like Michigan, Southern Cal, and Tennessee.

“Generally, because of the liberal arts structure, where you have to take sets of courses in all the areas,” Smith said, “we avoid things like Real Estate Management, Recreational Studies, and those kinds of majors that you see when you look at a football game on TV.”

Hattery, who taught at Wisconsin as a graduate student, said that given that some of the classes had as many as 500 students, she “can’t even imagine the amount of academic fraud that could be taking place there.” She added that the NCAA is setting itself up for more instances of fraud by lowering the minimum SAT score (the sliding scale now goes down to 400 depending on the high school grade point average) and raising the college grade point average requirements (higher than the University’s minimum requirements).

The University seems to have stayed reasonably fair in its treatment of athletes despite increasing pressure in major college sports to win at all costs. Smith said some athletes will ‘test’ the newer and younger faculty members at Wake Forest, but he said he’s never been afraid to fail an athlete who is expecting to be cut slack.

“Sometimes there’s this sort of ‘testing’ (of professors), sometimes they won’t turn in the work,” Smith said. “So I’ll go down my sheet, looking who’s turned in the work, this and that. And I’ll slap the ‘F’ on them.”

It appears that most athletes at the University have no problem adjusting to the rigorous academic lifestyle, and in the end, most appreciate the struggles they endured. “I feel overall I had a great academic experience at Wake,” Lingruen said. “Coming from a small public school in Ohio where only five of my classmates graduated college, all from state schools, I felt a little overwhelmed at first, but I quickly adjusted to the high academic demands.”

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