Academics for athletes come under fire

Surfacing allegations that a university disciplinary appellate committee went soft on a football player who got caught cheating twice in separate classes taught by the same professor, have once again thrust into the spotlight the rocky marriage between stringent athletic programs and academics.

Miami New Times recently reported that the Honor Council’s appeals committee – composed of the Provost, Vice President for Student Affairs and a student representative- overturned the sanction recommended by the student-run Council, which advised that UM wide receiver Andre Johnson be suspended for two semesters beginning this fall.

Had the punishment been upheld, the national champions would have stepped onto the field on August 31 for the first game of the season shy of their Rose Bowl co-Most Valuable player.

The Honor Council’s Selections and Appeals Committee suspended Johnson for the upcoming summer sessions. Johnson did not reply to a request for an interview.

Johnson’s first academic foul play occurred on September 21 during a sociology exam for a class taught by adjunct professor Thomas Petersen, a retired Miami-Dade Juvenile Court judge and former chief prosecutor for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office.

Petersen confronted Johnson after two students alerted him of the possibility that the player and two of his field mates may have swapped answers. The three tests, which got handed in at the same time, were identical.

The teacher briefed football coach Larry Coker about the incident. Coker said he would discuss the matter with Johnson and the team as a whole.

“I want to work with these students in every possible way,” wrote Petersen in a memo obtained by New Times, “and I certainly don’t want to jeopardize their athletic eligibility or their standing within the university if there is an explanation or resolution that is fair to the other students who took the test.”

In mid-December, Johnson handed in an essay on No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court, a book by Pulitzer award winner Edward Humes.

“Even a cursory reading of this paper clearly shows it to be a copy of a promotional description of the book,” wrote Petersen in a complaint addressed to the Honor Council.

Johnson said he was oblivious to the source of the report since his girlfriend had written it. He was the first student Peterson referred to the Honor Council.

Petersen told The Hurricane all the information that pertained to him printed by New Times was accurate.

“I hope something positive will come out of this,” Petersen told The Hurricane. “It may be a good opportunity to reexamine the marriage between academics and athletics,” he added.

Johnson’s case did not shock faculty members interviewed by the Hurricane.

“What I read mirrors what colleagues have told me from other departments,” said a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who spoke on condition of anonymity. That is, the source said, that academic standards for student athletes-particularly those in demanding sports programs-are lower than for those who are not.

A former professor from the English department, who taught several football players-including Johnson-told The Hurricane “most of them are at a 10th grade reading and writing level.”

The source said that during the three years he taught at UM, assistant coaches sometimes inserted “direct and indirect pressure” to give student athletes who performed poorly a passing grade.

The professor maintained that although his colleagues at UM were well aware that this trend was not exceptional, “every time I brought it up, they made a point that I needed to change the subject.”

The professor said he often felt the need to “slow down the pace of the class” in order to keep some student athletes on track at the expense of the more diligent students.

The highest scoring football player he taught earned a C+. “And trust me when I tell you, I was not a tough grader,” he said.

“Some teachers seem more lenient with athletes than others,” said Gregory Tabor, a junior majoring in sports management. ‘There’s definitely a double standard.”

Tabor added he feels he is more likely to get a better grade in a class with many athletes.

Several professors, including the former faculty member, also expressed concern over what they perceive to be a “systematic problem” in the priorities of the athletic programs. Some feel the athletes are being cheated out of their education.

“They’re being exploited,” said the English professor.

During practice a couple of weeks ago, Coach Larry Coker declined to comment on the Johnson case, he said the episode was behind them.

“We are here to go to school, to get an education,” he said. “As long as I’m here, that’s going to be our philosophy,” he added.

There is the perception among many faculty members that the academic advisors at the athletic department gear student athletes toward majors that require minimal course requirements and to enroll in classes of professors who are “easy graders,” according to the professor from Arts and Sciences.

It makes one wonder, the source said, whether the advising system is based on academics or athletics.

However, professors acknowledge the amount of pressure student athletes are under.

Eveleen Lorton, a professor in the School of Education, said she feels athletes are under a lot more pressure than non-athletes because they have demanding training schedules.

“When they have to miss classes [because of competitions] they have an awful lot of work to make up,” she said. “That’s tough on anybody.”

Defensive tackle Matt Walters, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said being on the football team and taking classes is like a full-time job.

“Most weeks [during off-season] it’s at least 40 hours,” Walters, 22, said. “During the season, it comes two about 70 hours a week.”

Walters added, “we don’t get special treatment from professors.”

“The athletes work just as hard in regular classes and have to worry about a football game Saturday night,” said defensive lineman Brett Romberg.

And due to the popularity of their team, UM’s football players, he said, are always under the microscope.

“If a regular student was caught [cheating] the only people who would probably hear about it are his parents,” Romberg said. “Whereas we would end up on the front page of The Herald. Some people just get singled out…like Andre Johnson,” Romberg said.

The mitigated sanction has concerned many faculty members. The ruling, they said, erodes the credibility of the honor code and suggests that the university may have a separate set of academic standards for student athletes.

“I think they have sent a message that there is a double-standard and undermined the authority of the honor council,” said the Arts and Sciences professor.

“I can understand why many are questioning the decision,” Lorton said.

Answering questions via e-mail, Mark Prey, spokesman for the Athletics Department said, “academic standards for eligibility are higher (grade point average and good academic standing) for student athletes at Miami than the NCAA’s satisfactory progress requirements.”

The NCAA regulates college sports programs.

Citing confidentiality restrictions, UM officials have remained tight-lipped about the case.

Patricia Whitely, Vice President of Student Affairs, one of the three members on the Honor Council appellate board, declined several requests for phone interviews but answered questions via e-mail. Whitely said she could not disclose any information about the case or any other cases of honor council violations.

In a press release presented to the media the week of March 4, when the story broke, Whitely said the Council has reviewed 10 cases this academic year.

William Sandler, Dean of Students and Secretary of the Honor Council, also said he could not comment on the Johnson case. Sandler said the Council rules on about 20 cases a year. Most of them involve plagiarism charges. The penalties may range from a disciplinary warning to expulsion from the university. Some of the sanctions handed down over the last year have been summer suspensions, he said. Sandler added he could not recall how many.

President Shalala declined to talk to the Hurricane.