National Collegiate Athletic Association officials have taken pride  in the rising rates at which Division I athletes are graduating, and they often credit the association's five-year-old academic eligibility rules as a driving factor. But the rules, which for the first time penalize college teams whose athletes do not make adequate progress toward a degree, were also widely seen as increasing the pressure on institutions and coaches to ensure that they do.
The hope was that this goal would be accomplished through a positive change in the culture -- recruiting more academically qualified athletes, perhaps, or putting more emphasis on players' classroom success. But the fear among others was that those gains might be achieved through less noble means -- encouraging students to take the academic path of least resistance, or, in the worst case, cheating.
Figuring out whether the recent gains in graduation rates of NCAA athletes have been achieved through good means or bad is next to impossible, as the factors are many and evidence about such things as the academic qualifications of incoming athletes is hard to come by. But USA Today on Wednesday published a special report  that provides significant evidence that athletes on many high-profile teams "cluster" in certain majors.
About a third of all football, men's and women's basketball, baseball and softball teams at the 142 colleges examined had at least 25 percent of their juniors and seniors in the same major field of study, and on more than half of those teams -- 125 of 235 -- at least 40 percent of the upperclassmen were in the same major.
A few examples: Twenty-two, or 58 percent, of the junior and senior football players at the University of Southern California in 2007 majored in sociology, representing one-fifth of all junior and senior sociology majors at USC. Sixteen of 25 junior and senior football players at Vanderbilt University majored in human and organizational development, and 31 of 41 football players at the University of Michigan majored in general studies. (A chart published as part of USA Today's package  lists all of the teams that have at least 25 percent of their junior and senior members in a particular major.)
Such clustering, many college sports officials argue, is not in and of itself a problem. Every college has majors that are more and less popular, and they fluctuate over time for a wide range of reasons. Students also tend to make choices about their studies based in part on what their peers are doing, so given the significant amount of time that athletes spend together, it's hardly surprising that teammates would end up in the same majors. And athletes may end up in certain majors more than other students because of their interests (particularly explaining overrepresentation in sports-related fields) or because the time demands of their sports discourage, if not rule out, disciplines that require lots of afternoon labs or the equivalent.
"There's been an exponential growth in how much we demand of student-athletes, by day, week, semester and across the whole calendar year," said Chris Kennedy, deputy director of athletics at Duke University. "There's a sense that coaches want their kids available all the time, and that makes it harder to choose some majors."
But having significant numbers of athletes at a college in a particular major does raise concerns that the NCAA's academic policies, well-intentioned as they are, may be driving athletes -- or, worse yet, prompting colleges to push athletes -- into majors that are perceived as being easier.
In addition to injecting significant new data into the discussion, which has been raised by several recent controversies involving independent study at Auburn University and the University of Michigan, the USA Today report highlights athletes at several institutions who said they had been "steered" into certain "friendly" majors by academic advisers or coaches intent on keeping the players eligible to compete. "This is what everybody is doing. It's the easiest major," one former athlete recalls being told by an academic adviser from the athletics department.
The idea that big-time college athletes might seek out the academic path of least resistance is hardly a new concept. But what makes the issue of clustering particularly relevant now, for some observers, is that the whole design of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate system  is to increase the stakes on colleges to ensure that athletes stay on track to a degree. The worry has been that by taking away scholarships from teams whose athletes become ineligible to compete or leave college in poor academic standing, the NCAA -- in addition to encouraging more emphasis on academic performance -- may well have increased the incentives on athletes and colleges to take the easy route.
The USA Today report (heartening proof that newspapers can still engage in good and important enterprise journalism at a time when the industry is struggling) does not offer conclusive evidence either way. But by examining the majors of 9,300 athletes on more than 600 teams at the 120 colleges that play football in the NCAA's top competitive level and 22 other colleges with high-profile men's basketball teams, the newspaper updates and greatly expands on data from its 2003 survey  (produced in part by this reporter) suggesting that clustering could be an undesirable by-product of the NCAA's then-pending academic reforms.
The data collected by USA Today, which came mostly from information publicly available through the colleges' sports information and other offices, zeroed in on those teams where at least 25 percent of juniors and seniors (those most likely to have declared a major) had chosen the same major (a 33 percent minimum figure was used for teams of fewer than 10 upperclassmen or women). Eighty-three percent of the colleges (118 of 142) had at least one team that met the 25 percent threshold, and 125 of the 654 total teams had at least 40 percent of their juniors and seniors in the same major.
Some of the numbers catch the eye. Twenty-one of 29 junior and senior football players and all seven men's basketball athletes at the University of Texas at El Paso majored in interdisciplinary studies in 2007-8. At the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, about 60 percent of football and baseball players and five of six men's basketball players majored in "university studies," as did 57 percent of football players and four of five basketball players at the University of New Mexico.
Officials at several of the universities with large apparent clusters in many cases cited anomalies about their institutions to explain the numbers. Dan Radakovich, athletics director at Georgia Institute of Technology, said in an interview Wednesday that the figures reported for his institution -- showing that 27 of its 33 football players, 10 of its 12 baseball players, and 5 of 8 men's basketball juniors and seniors in 2007 had majored in management -- "don't cause me a whole lot of concern." Georgia Tech has only 31 majors altogether, he said, and 25 of those are in engineering or science-related fields. About half of Tech athletes major in management and about 30 percent in engineering, Radakovich said (70 percent of its swimmers are engineers), and even the management program -- ranked 20th in the country among public institutions, he said -- "has a technology-based twist."
Asked if the USA Today numbers suggest that Georgia Tech's athletes are not representative of the student body as a whole, he said: "No. What it says to me is that student-athletes, when they get here, find that their interest level is more relating to management than to engineering.... I'm not sure that one is incredibly less rigorous or prepares [them] less for a successful career."
What would worry him? "If I was looking and seeing, Why are 80 percent of students in psychology at Georgia Tech? If I see stats moving in that direction, then I would become concerned on my behalf, sitting in the chair I'm sitting in."
Officials at Boise State, where about half of all junior and senior football, baseball and men's basketball players majored in communications in 2007, reacted angrily to the suggestion, as one former player there put it in the USA Today article, that "you're going to school so you can stay in sports. You're not going for a degree... It's a joke."
“I think we all take offense to it,” the athletics director at Boise State, Gene Bleymaier, told an Idaho Statesman columnist Wednesday. “The implication is 100 percent wrong."
“Communications is a major where there’s a number of electives and there’s a number of core classes that do provide some flexibility in the classes that you take and the times that you take those classes," Bleymaier said. "I think that plays a role in the attractiveness of communications.... The new [academic] rules that have been implemented over the years have helped and have motivated students. Those rules may in fact have limited some options for student-athletes. There’s no question with practice schedules and travel schedules, not every major is readily available. There are some limitations on what major a student-athlete can pursue. Those are choices that every individual can make.”
If, that is, the athletes are making the choices. The hypothesis behind those most concerned about clustering, though, is that by imposing financial and other penalties on colleges whose athletes don't thrive academically, the changes in the NCAA's rules may have increased the incentives for institutions to make sure that they do, by hook or by crook. While NCAA and many college officials reject that view as overly cynical, some of them acknowledge that excessive levels of clustering of athletes in majors warrant a closer look.
"[W]hen you have extreme clustering," Myles Brand, the NCAA's president, told USA Today, "you really do have to ask some hard questions: Is there an adviser who's pushing students into this? Are there some faculty members who are too friendly with student-athletes? I'm not saying that's the case. But I think you have to ask those questions."
Those questions, Brand and others say, should be asked by professors and administrators on individual campuses, since questions about curriculums and course quality at a given college or university are the purview not of the NCAA, but of the faculty there.
David Goldfield, who is the Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and has been active in NCAA academic policy making, agreed that professors at campuses where athletes appear to be clustered in a major or majors should be asking them a series of questions to determine if a problem exists.
"I'd be looking for several things," he said. "First is the percentage of courses [that can be taken to satisfy the major's requirements] that are nontraditional courses -- offered online or in independent study. The second thing I would look for is if there's a disparity between the student-athletes' grades in that particular major and their grades in other courses -- that might tip you off that something is happening in that major.
"The third thing is whether there are certain professors and courses that student-athletes are herded into to boost their GPAs. Do certain professors turn up all the time associated with large numbers of student-athletes?
"These are the issues that faculty ought to pay attention to on their campuses, if we're trying to ensure that our student-athletes, like the rest of the student body, receive an education."
While Goldfield generally agrees with Brand's notion that this is primarily a campus issue, the question of whether NCAA policies might be encouraging clustering is worth trying to ferret out, too. "The first thing you'd want to know ... is whether there was clustering before the change in regulations, or whether the clustering pattern at a particular campus or set of campuses is new. If it's the former, that's one thing. But if there's been a change, maybe we can attribute that to the [Academic Progress Rate], and maybe we need to adjust that because maybe it hasn't changed the culture in quite the way it was intended."