Arizona Cardinals running back Edgerrin James left the University of Miami not only without a degree, but without the ability to form a grammatically correct sentence. Since Pat Fitzgerald started coaching the Northwestern football team, every one of his scholarship athletes has come in articulate and come out with a degree.
“That’s who we are,” said Fitzgerald. “Myself as a head coach, we as a staff and us as a program embrace who we are and what we stand for at Northwestern.”
Everyone thinks that’s a good thing.
Everyone thinks it’s a good thing that athletes here are held to the same academic standards as other Northwestern students; that to be recruited by Northwestern, an athlete has to have a high GPA and take more difficult classes than his or her peers.
Everyone thinks it’s a good thing that Kevin Coble, the star of the Wildcat basketball team, had a 4.4 GPA during his senior year of high school, and everyone thinks that it’s okay that our sports teams aren’t better because Northwestern is willing to sacrifice athletic success for academic reputation.
“I think that’s something that separates us from a lot of the other schools out there,” said Coble.
No one sees the whole picture because no one fully comprehends the correlation between academic success and social capital. No one realizes that Northwestern’s athletic scholarships are for people who are in the same economic bracket as the typical upper-middle class Northwestern student, or that our scholarship athletes would have gone to college, even if they weren’t Division I caliber athletes.
Our university is so busy trying to uphold its academic standards that it doesn’t realize it’s limiting social mobility.
The American dream is impossible without a given amount of social capital. That’s a sociological problem that will take an innumerable amount of time to fix. But sports have been, and still are, a way to circumvent that problem at other universities.
Bob Sanders, an Indianapolis Colts safety, was born in Erie, Penn. to a family of 10. His father was a foundry worker. In 2000, Sanders was given a scholarship to the University of Iowa, and he left the school in 2003 with a degree in African-American and World Studies. By 2007, he had won a defensive player of the year award, and his $37.5 million contract gives him significantly more social capital than his father.
Thomas Jones, the New York Jets’ starting tailback, was born into a coal mining family in Virginia. His mother worked the midnight shift for almost twenty years to support her seven children. In 1996, Jones received a scholarship to the University of Virginia, and in 1999 he left UVA for the NFL with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Last season, he was the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher.
Northwestern can give players like Sanders and Jones opportunities if they lower their academic standards for athletes. They can facilitate social mobility instead of preventing it like the rest of society.
If Northwestern lowered their academic standards, not every scholarship athlete would graduate. There would be players like Edgerrin James at NU, but there would also be athletes like Sanders and Jones — athletes who were willing to work on the field and in the classroom, who took advantage of an opportunity through sports and managed to obtain a degree of higher learning, who raised their social capital and increased their children’s ability to succeed.
Northwestern can give athletes like Sanders and Jones opportunities, but instead the university puts all of their coaches at a recruiting disadvantage, and keeps the lower class at a permanent disadvantage.