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FIRST PLACE: COLUMN
I first witnessed academic fraud in a big-time college football program my freshman year at LSU. The perpetrator was a 6-foot-4, 240-pound freshman fast enough to run a leg on his high school sprint-relay team.
He leaned forward on a small dais barely strong enough to support his elbows and began to describe a snowflake in exquisite detail. After he had stumbled over several frilly adjectives, the professor told him to take a seat.
The professor wasn't opposed to athletes. He was very much an adversary of fools.
The student-athlete obviously had employed the services of a ghostwriter to compose his descriptive speech. But did he have to be so flagrantly fraudulent? A snowflake? Why not a duck blind or a largemouth bass?
The University of Tennessee athletic department is now being investigated for snowflakes. Linda Bensel-Meyers, a UT English professor, contends the department is guilty of academic abuse, including plagiarism. In the midst of these charges, Bensel-Meyers says her phone was bugged, her office was broken into, and she received threatening mail.
Welcome to big-time college football.
Excuse the cynicism. But big-time college football and academics don't mix. They never have.
The goals of big-time college football programs are to: win championships, fill stadiums, clothe everyone in their metropolitan area in school colors, make enough money to pay the salaries of a dozen-or-so assistant athletic directors and still have enough left over to help fund non-revenue sports for men and women.
Never mind whether your players can diagram a complex sentence or balance a chemical equation. That won't help you win games. That won't put more fans in the stands.
Good recruits help you win games. Keeping good recruits in school helps you win games.
I have interviewed student-athletes who couldn't write a declarative sentence if you spotted them the subject and the verb. I also have interviewed student-athletes who have become doctors, novelists, even sportswriters.
Some student-athletes are honor students. Some need ghostwriters. The team needs both to play on Saturdays. That's reality.
And that's not just at UT, or in 2000.
Bensel-Meyers has said her concern is institutional credibility, not NCAA violations. The majority of East Tennesseans are concerned about the latter. That's more reality.
The tutorial wing of UT's athletic department has been under investigation on and off since last fall by the NCAA, reporters, and a very persistent UT English professor. Based on the reported evidence, the Vols aren't in danger of losing so much as a scholarship. My guess is you could find as much impropriety at any other top 25 football program.
It's a matter of scope. When plagiarism is as extensive as at the University of Minnesota, you've got problems. The NCAA isn't about to hammer UT or any other football program of that ilk over snowflakes.
The NCAA likes big-time college football. So do most sportswriters.
No, I don't approve of everything that goes with it. And, yes, I can appreciate an academician's frustration. However, this isn't just about football. It's also about education in general.
Universities now admit students who have been classified as "learning disabled." Some of the students play football. Some don't. Because of their learning disability, they are entitled to special assistance. Where does the special assistance end, and the plagiarism begin?
I've seen the work of a learning-disabled student. It's sad. It's also sad a tutor would be asked to transform that work into something a college professor would deem passable.
What's good enough for a university is certainly good enough for a football coach. If a learning-disabled student takes a test orally and untimed or receives extensive tutorial assistance on an essay, that's not a handicap for a football coach. That's an advantage.
The system lends itself to abuse. Learning-disabled students at an institution of higher learning?
There's still a way to reduce the hypocrisy and cut down on the investigations. Let student-athletes major in their sport of choice.
Musicians are allowed to major in music. Why couldn't a football player pursue a degree in football?
If you wanted to major in engineering as UT defensive tackle Darwin Walker did, that would be fine, too. If you weren't interested in engineering or urban studies, football could be an option.
What would you do with a football degree?
Answer: What do you do with a history degree?
A student-athlete majoring in football still would be required to take electives. Yet he also would receive credit for the hours he invested in football.
Put yourself in the cleats of a major-college football player the week of a big game, or any game for that matter. What would you study? English or game tape?
Your English assignment will be critiqued by one professor. Your football performance might be watched by millions on television and critiqued by a staff of coaches, and scores of sportscasters, sportswriters and talk-show callers.
Big-time football has become a year-round course. Its players go from the regular season, to the bowl season, to off-season conditioning, to spring football, to more off-season conditioning.
And it teaches you more than football.
It teaches you self-discipline and teamwork. It teaches you how to get along with people, how to deal with criticism and how to perform under pressure.
It teaches you that a tutor won't always be there to pull you through.
Comment from the judge, Kevin Sherrington: Taking on the evils of college football in a college football town is gutsy, and perhaps career threatening. The writer confronted the topic with confidence and skill. And his answer to the problem was innovative, if not entirely practical.
• Second place: John Canzano, Fresno Bee
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