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When it comes to college athletics, schools need to stop playing games

Student athlete.

A cynic might say that's a contradiction in terms, but he'd be wrong.

Female college athletes are almost always good students. They're organized and hard-working, and they're in college because they want to be. Male student athletes in minor sports are usually OK, too. You sometimes run into kids who are using their gifts to pay for an education they really want, just like in the movies.

Big-time college athletics, on the other hand, are a joke--the college part is, anyway. The administration, faculty and fans all know this. The NCAA knows it. Blind, nocturnal, cave-dwelling animals know it. (There are exceptions, my husband insists. Stanford basketball. Bill Bradley. Yeah, whatever. I'm talking about Tucson.)

But tradition and the NCAA dictate that colleges and universities pretend that the semipro teams they sponsor are made up of students. It's a lie, and the inevitable result is corruption. And like all corruption, academic fraud erodes the institutions it infects.

The tale of Associate Professor Alexander Nava, the "unnamed" grad-student/athlete and the independent study is not an isolated one. Everyone knows that, too. Student athletes get lots of tutoring and special help, but they still need easy classes: They have to somehow pull good enough grades to stay eligible while training and playing almost as hard as professional athletes. Their schedules would keep all but the best-prepared students from keeping up with their classes, much less kids who've spent their young lives perfecting their jump shot.

(I used to be shocked by all the time the basketball team spends out of town. "But they must miss so many classes," I'd say to my husband. He'd just laugh.)

Naturally, there are some programs and professors who are particularly sympathetic to the needs of athletes. Duh. The identities of jock-sniffers with class lists bulging with name talent are no secret on campus. And there are ways around even some of the straight teachers.

True story: More than 20 years ago, I taught freshman English at the UA for a few semesters. At the time--and this shows how long ago it was--the football team was a big deal, partly because of a hot place kicker named Max Zendejas. A fellow graduate assistant, a sweet, unworldly older student, had him in class. His name meant nothing to Sidonie. Part way into the semester, as required, she reported the names of her failing students. The next day, she was called down to the freshman English office and was told that Max was a nice boy who'd been really busy, but now he was getting help and maybe she should just hold off, because he would certainly do better. Mystified, she came back and told her officemates what had happened. They asked what the kid's name was. When they heard that she'd tried to flunk Zendejas, they practically fell off their chairs laughing. How naïve could one person be?

Nava's sin was not (allegedly) catering to athletes, but (allegedly) doing it in the wrong department, and (allegedly) flagrantly. (Full disclosure: My husband is a professor in the English Department. English, like the Classics Department and Religious Studies Program, is part of the College of Humanities.) Although technically in classics, Nava is an associate professor in the Religious Studies Program, which classics houses as a sort of unassimilated foreign object. Nava's appointment as interim head of classics by the widely unpopular dean of the College of Humanities, Professor Charles Tatum, was not well-received by his colleagues. Classics wanted Nava out.

And if the allegations are true, he did go overboard. Apart from not being qualified in the opinion of his colleagues to teach what he would have allegedly taught Chris Rodgers had Rodgers showed up, the idea of anyone conducting 27 real independent studies in a semester--for jocks, frat boys, Nobel laureates, anyone--is absurd. (An investigation into that aspect of the scandal is continuing.)

The people in classics were right to be incensed. To have somebody do this with your subject, in your department? For a serious academic, that's intolerable. (And I can't even imagine how angry they are now at Nava for playing the race card in his statements to the press: He's Hispanic. Many UA basketball players are African American. OK. And?)

But back to basketball. It makes the fans happy--so why not cut the players some slack? Why should they be forced to pretend to be students?

They shouldn't be. How about reforming the whole college athletics thing to reflect reality? Sever all big-revenue sports from the real business of a university, which is education and research, and you could still have teams with the school's name on them. The only thing that would change is that the athletes would be paid a bit, like players in baseball's minor leagues, and wouldn't have to waste time warming seats in family studies classes. The guys would get a full ride for anytime after their four years were up--hey, they could even take a few units during the season if it didn't interfere with their training--but that would be their choice.

Of course, it will never happen: College sports are a gigantic business, and nobody's going to change the way things are done. But think how many administrators would be able to sleep at night if everyone could stop playing games.

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