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But it could endanger the Russell Whites and Joe Igbers of the world, whose first priority is to get a degree. For them, if sports was the means to an education, then so be it. And if it required bargaining with an alleged college sports cartel — well, two could play at that game.
Joe Igber came to UC Berkeley in 1999 with a football scholarship in hand, dead-set on pursuing an engineering degree. Born in Nigeria and raised in Honolulu, he was an outlier among jocks. His father was a university professor, his mother a teacher; he attended a college preparatory school in Honolulu with robust academic and sports programs.
"Coming from Nigeria, academics was never even a question — that was always number one," Igber says. "Football was not part of anything. It was just something that coincidentally happened."
He set up his schedule accordingly. On a typical day, Igber woke up at 5:30 a.m., rushed to the stadium by 5:45, and lifted weights from 6 to 8. From there he dashed back to campus for six hours of classes. He'd return to the stadium at 2 p.m. and spend two hours watching recordings of previous games with his teammates, analyzing the plays. They ran drills from 4 until 7:30, then he'd either eat a carbohydrate-packed meal with his teammates, or run back to campus and eat dinner with friends. And then, from about 9 p.m. until 3 a.m., he'd study.
Igber slept two or three hours a night, worked throughout the day, and sometimes survived on banana bread and apple juice. He says he only missed four classes during his five years as an undergraduate.
"That was my life," he recalls, 12 years later. "A lot of the other football players had no idea I was doing engineering, a lot of the engineering students had no idea I was playing football." Igber even managed to hide his sports career from really close friends — one of them only found out after recognizing Igber's face on a Cal Bears poster.
And he wasn't the only athlete who effectively lived a double life. With sports often taking up 60 hours of the average player's schedule a week, well over the "20-hour rule" proposed by the NCAA, it's little surprise that many players struggle to compete with their peers at the university.
"[Football] was a full time job," Russell White says, remembering that he availed himself of every possible resource at Berkeley, from tutoring to the disabled students' program (he was diagnosed with dyslexia). "Some of the guys I walked in with as a freshman didn't walk out with me as seniors," he adds. "My time management was just on point."
In truth, athletes aren't just overburdened by their practice schedules. Many of them also start at a disadvantage, coming in with a lower GPA and test scores compared to other university students. (Berkeley currently has no set admissions criteria for athletes; their applications are evaluated by a committee of five faculty members and the director of undergraduate admissions.)
The university has tried to fix this problem in all kinds of well-meaning ways. Berkeley offers special tutoring services for athletes (Full disclosure: I worked as an Athletic Studies Center tutor from 2002 to 2004), along with courses like "Education 75: Introduction to Sport and Higher Education," which attempts to elevate the study of sport. Though offered to all students, these courses cater to athletes. The lectures take place between practices, and the instructors often work in the Athletic Studies Center. The center's director, Derek Van Rheenen, will teach a three-unit seminar this fall on "Theoretical Foundations for the Cultural Study of Sport in Education."
That title alone speaks volumes about Berkeley's conflicted relationship with the idea of student athletics. Teaching sports as a cultural study helps ennoble — or at least incorporate — the athletes, who've long inhabited a separate, parallel universe from other students. It also conflates sports with academics, in a way that's self-serving both to UC Berkeley (which has never advertised itself as a jock school) and to the system of college sports at large. If "sport" is a field of study, then the football team amounts to an academic department. The players, moreover, are apt pupils.
That's certainly a strong ideology at UC Berkeley, which is torn about its athletics program. Those who don't equate sports with scholarship might see the "Sport in Education" course as a way for the university to coddle its athletes — or coast them through a highly demanding system.
But many other schools have similar tactics. For years, advisers at Stanford University's Athletic Academic Resource Center allegedly passed out an easy course list to student-athletes each quarter (called "Courses of Interest"), much of it larded with introductory classes that could accommodate athletes' schedules. (The practice reportedly ended in 2011, following an investigation by journalists at California Watch.) Other schools, such as Oklahoma State University, garnered criticism for deliberately driving student-athletes into easy majors. At the University of North Carolina, athletes are reportedly steered into "paper" courses that don't require them to show up for class, and don't have a class syllabus. Often members of the athletic department oversee these classes, rather than the faculty member of record.
Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky describes this practice as "clustering," meaning that athletes in big, revenue-producing sports are often funneled into the same classes, residence halls, and majors, so that they become easier to manage. "It's a challenge to talk about, because it's always been a covert phenomenon," Staurowsky, who served as an expert witness in the O'Bannon trial, explains. "But at this point, almost any constituency within college sports recognizes this practice."