Dear "Student-Athlete"

G. Thomas Couser has had some good encounters with athletes in his classes. But in a letter to one, he laments what the player has lost by being coddled and not caring.

April 23, 2015

Dear “Student-Athlete”:

Most of my encounters with students who, like you, are intercollegiate athletes, have been pleasant. Joking aside, the term “student-athlete” is not an oxymoron -- i.e., a self-contradiction. When it seems to be, it’s only what I like to call a fauxymoron -- like “jumbo shrimp”: its terms are not contradictory by definition. It’s just that the two roles can conflict.

For the most part, then, I have enjoyed having students who are athletes. Concerned with protecting their eligibility, they tend to come to class and do the work honestly to the best of their ability. Living with the demands of training and traveling, most have learned to manage their time effectively.  

But I have also had a couple of student-athletes who were trouble because they were athletes rather than students. Most of these individuals, not surprisingly, were male, and they were engaged in high-profile sports, such as football and basketball. Such programs seem to encourage a sense of entitlement on the part of their clients, who may receive academic assistance that goes beyond what is appropriate.

That’s where you come in.

When you showed up in my Introduction to American Studies course, your arrival wasn’t a surprise; I’d been alerted by your coach. In fact, he told me he’d be at the first class to introduce you. I was not pleased by this, for two reasons. First, it suggested that he wanted to impress on me your status (and stature) as a varsity athlete; while it may be well-meaning, this action signals that athletes deserve special consideration. Second, it placed him between you and me and thus characterized you as needing his intervention -- not a good start to our professor/student relationship.

I could have overlooked this had you done the assigned work. But it was pretty clear from the get-go that you were not a serious student. You may have been the only student who never participated in discussion (which is encouraged but not required). That would not have been a problem if you seemed to be following the discussion. But that would depend on your doing the assigned reading. Which you didn’t seem to be doing. You rarely brought the text to class. When you did, it didn’t show any signs of having been read, much less underlined.

Professors really like their students to do the reading on schedule. It enables discussion and facilitates learning. A fringe benefit: it makes class more enjoyable for students. Indeed, I can imagine few things more boring than having to listen to others discuss reading I hadn’t done. And our classes were 85 minutes long!

What torture that must have been for you. In a large class, I wouldn’t have cared so much; you could have faded into the woodwork or dozed off, as even normally attentive students sometimes do. But in a small class, you were a real distraction -- a drag by your very presence. Your body language and facial expressions conveyed your discomfort and boredom.

I knew that there would be a reckoning when the first paper came in. And yours was obviously bogus. The first sign was that it was off topic. My assigned topics build on study questions and class discussion. Your paper was in no way responsive to the prompt. And a quick Internet search revealed that it was in large part copied from online sources. Had you properly cited these sources, you would have revealed that there wasn’t enough original content for you to claim the paper as your own. But in not acknowledging them, you committed outright plagiarism, so the penalty was failure for the course.

It occurred to me that perhaps you hadn’t done the cutting and pasting yourself. Maybe you purchased the paper online; more likely, it was provided to you by a “tutor” or “academic adviser.” You may have been unaware of what bogus goods you were handing over. But you couldn’t have thought it was legitimate to submit it.

With a grade of F, you stopped coming to class, and the atmosphere was the better for your absence.

That wasn’t the end of the story, though. From a coach’s email to all your profs, I knew your academic schedule, and I was curious about your performance in other courses. I recognized one as a notorious gut course in art history; I was unfamiliar with the others. Of course, I could not inform your other professors that I had failed you for plagiarism and warn them to watch for it. That would have violated your confidentiality. But I solicited their impressions of you as a student. None responded, so I assumed you were not regarded as a problem in their courses.

Not long after I gave your paper back, however, I did hear from another faculty member. He identified himself as the university’s faculty liaison for athletes (and I learned that he represented the university on an intercollegiate committee of colleagues). He offered to help resolve my problem with you -- a service not available to non-athletes. I responded that the problem had been resolved, and I never heard from him again.

I was sufficiently interested in your fate to Google you. I discovered that you’d transferred in from a junior college. And at the end of the year, you transferred out.

You never had a professional career in basketball. So I wonder what you got out of your college career. You were able to play your sport competitively after high school; that must have been gratifying. And in such a high-profile sport, you had a degree of celebrity on campus. One of the female students in the class seemed impressed by that.

But while you may have been accruing college credits (in your other courses, at least), you clearly were not getting an education. I don’t know which makes me feel worse: that you were wasting your time on a sham or that the college was wasting scholarship money on you.

But here’s the most insidious part of the phenomenon that you represent. In effect, the athletic program infantilized you. Others figured out what you should major in, arranged your schedule, interceded with your professors and chose your courses. (They didn’t even do that competently, or they’d never have placed you in one of my classes.)

So I would say that the athletic program did you no favor. Quite the contrary -- it deprived you of an opportunity for a genuine education, not just intellectual but personal development: taking responsibility for your actions, growing up. Rather than advancing your true interests and preparing you for life after college, I would say the program set you back.

I wish you luck making up for lost time.

Sincerely yours,

G. Thomas Couser


G. Thomas Couser is a professor emeritus of English at Hofstra University.


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