Auburn and the Opiate of America


In 2007, then-Stanford University head football coach Jim Harbaugh (now of the San Francisco 49ers) made statements about his alma mater, the University of Michigan, that cast aspersions on the school’s practice of admitting substandard students in order to compete in the Big Ten Conference. Said Harbaugh,

Michigan is a good school and I got a good education there… but the athletic department has ways to get borderline guys in and, when they’re in, they steer them to courses in sports communications. They’re adulated when they’re playing, but when they get out, the people who adulated them won’t hire them.

Most in the PC world of sportswriting claimed to be appalled by Harbaugh’s pointing out of the obvious. One exception was ESPN’s Pat Forde:

The hard numbers seem to be on Joltin' Jim's side.

All it takes to see that is a scan of the 2007 Michigan media guide. Only 30 players have listed majors, and 19 of them are pursuing degrees in something called "general studies." That's 20 percent of the team, and 63 percent of the players who have declared a major. 

But even Forde wasn’t willing to touch on the REAL truth behind what Harbaugh had said.

College football (and basketball) offer Black Americans opportunities to attend schools like Michigan that their academic records and performance on SAT/ACT tests would never grant them, even with affirmative action. Blacks make up only six percent of National Champion Auburn University’s 23,000 undergraduate body, for instance; they comprise around 80 percent of the football team’s starting lineup. Black people, who would seem to have little in common with many of the institutions for which they play, become heroes to students, alumni, and fans alike. Universities, in turn, rely on athletes like Auburn’s Cam Newton—and, by all indications, pay them handsomely—in order to bring in hundreds of millions in revenue each year.

Competing at the highest level of college sports has, for the past 40 years, meant recruiting Blacks. And this has proven incompatible with maintaining even a semblance of academic rigor for "student athletes." Indeed, the NCAA has, since integration, had two tiers of college athlete, White and Black, with dramatically difference academic expectations, even though the football programs’ tutors and multi-million dollar education facilities are available to all.

Richard Lapchick has been on a lifelong crusade on behalf of underperforming Black student athletes. His organization publishes a yearly breakdown of the graduation rates of bowl-bound football teams—and every year a minor scandal erupts over the racial gap in graduation rates. This year was no different.

Auburn, for instance, graduated 100 percent of its White players, but under half of its Blacks. Auburn’s opponent in the National Championship game, the University of Oregon, is in a similar situation: it graduated 76 percent of Whites and just over 40 percent of Blacks on its squad.  As Lapchick details,

Among the 70 bowl-bound teams this year, the G[raduation] S[uccess] R[ate] for African-American football student-athletes is 60 percent, up from 58 percent in 2009. The GSR for white football student athletes went from 77 percent last year to 80 percent this year. Overall, this reflects a 20 percentage point gap, which is up one percentage point from last year.

This unsettling racial reality has prompted many universities to dumb-down their curricula even more than usual. Auburn is a good example. The university created a series of dubious “independent study” classes in order to keep Black players eligible.  Auburn Professor Jim Gundlach saw through the fraud and was one of the few willing to call a spade a spade. The New York Times report is worth quoting at length:

In the aftermath of a football academic scandal at Auburn in 2006 that caused two department heads to step down and the N.C.A.A. to investigate, university officials are no longer bragging — or even talking — about the team’s once-stellar scholastic record.

Auburn’s top-ranked football team, which is preparing to play Oregon in Glendale, Ariz., for the national title on Monday, has tumbled in the N.C.A.A.’s most important academic measurement to No. 85 from No. 4 among the 120 major college football programs.

The decline came after the university closed several academic loopholes following a New York Timesarticle in 2006 that showed numerous football players padded their grade-point averages and remained eligible through independent-study-style courses that required little or no work. Auburn has earned a certain sort of praise from those who were its toughest critics in 2006.

“Auburn was in a rogue position and they corrected it,” said Gordon Gee, who in 2006, when he was Vanderbilt’s chancellor, was stunned that Auburn was ranked higher than his university. Gee is now president of Ohio State. “When those loopholes are closed and the issue is dramatically different, it shows that the loophole was being used. I applaud Auburn. They really did make a concerted effort to curb those abuses. We should applaud them even if they dropped 80 points.”

Auburn’s drop in the Academic Progress Rate, a four-year assessment of the movement toward graduation for a team’s players, is the third largest in college football since 2006, behind Mississippi’s (to 113 from 18) and Florida State’s (to 105 from 17). Since 2006, both Florida State and Michigan have endured academic scandals, with Michigan’s ranking falling to 84 from 27.

Among all the bowl teams this season, Auburn has the highest disparity in the graduation rates between white players (100 percent) and black players (49 percent), according to a study at the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

Jim Gundlach, the Auburn sociology professor who uncovered the academic abuse, saw the decline in the team’s ranking as progress. “A genuine consequence to this has been that the people who want to do things right have gotten a bit more grasp over what the university is trying to do,” he said.

Auburn’s athletic director, Jay Jacobs, declined to comment. The Tigers’ second-year football coach, Gene Chizik, said of his team’s academic performance and support, “We do a great job, so we’re not concerned with that.” When pressed on the issue of graduating black players, Chizik said, “Those are circumstances; there’s all kinds of different things.”

In 2006, Auburn football was No. 1 among public universities in the academic ranking, alongside private institutions like Duke and Boston College. But some irregularities had caught Gundlach’s attention two years earlier.

He saw on television that an academic football player of the week was an Auburn sociology major, yet Gundlach was surprised that he had never had him in class. He asked two other sociology professors, who also did not recall having him as their student. Gundlach dug through records and soon found that Auburn football players were graduating as sociology majors without taking sociology courses in the classroom.

He found that 18 players on Auburn’s undefeated 2004 team had taken 97 directed-reading course hours — independent study-style classes — from Thomas Petee, the sociology department’s highest-ranking member. Petee taught 252 independent studies in one academic year, 2004-5, astounding Auburn faculty members, who said that overseeing 10 independent studies would be considered ambitious.

The BSC Championship teams—college football’s elite—only bring the racial disparity into starker contrast.  ESPN’s Roy Johnson writes: “Auburn, in fact, had the biggest gap among all bowl teams… The [Oregon] Ducks are even worse at graduating black players, sending barely four in 10 (41 percent) away with degrees. The survey found five schools among the 70 that participated in FBS bowl games that graduate fewer than 40 percent of black players."

What a nightmare.

These numbers are important because most of the players we watched Monday night -- and watched throughout the painfully long and superfluous bowl season -- won't likely be playing on Sundays when their college eligibility is over. They'll be out here, where we are, searching for work with the rest of America; and without degrees, they'll be less qualified to compete for the most coveted jobs and careers.

In that sense, sports has not only not achieved King's dream but is all but assuring it may never come to fruition.

Johnson, of course, assumes that most Americans are intellectually capable of college-level academics and that graduating athletes is simply a matter of inspiration and public policy. The vast majority of IQ testing says otherwise.

At any rate, a bright light among the darkness of college football has been Jim Harbaugh, who before exiting for the NFL, displayed a serious commitment to academic standards. Stanford graduated 79 percent of its Black players and 97 percent of its White athletes. Virginia Tech, Stanford’s opponent in this year’s Orange Bowl, graduated only three quarters of players of both races.

And one would be blind not to notice the unusual amount of White starters playing for Stanford during Harbaugh’s tenure. Owen Marecic, a two-way player for the Cardinal, was the subject of a New York Times report on his exploits in the classroom. One of Harbaugh's standouts from last year, Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart, was an engineering major and scored impressively on the Wonderlic exam, an IQ-test stand-in the NFL administers to all draft prospects. Gerhart is White, and few colleges besides Stanford offered him the chance to play running back.

Harbaugh makes one believe that another world of collegiate athletics is possible.

Whatever the case, the current world of college football, in which White fans cheer for Black hired hands, leaves many with the sense that something is rotten in the heart of American popular culture. One prominent African-American writer, Dr. Boyce Watkins, has attacked the football industry in the most provocative of terms: “When I saw the final score of last night’s NCAA championship game where Auburn University defeated the University of Oregon, I sent a tweet to my friends that said, ‘Congratulations.  Your plantation was the strongest tonight.'"

As the southerners who love Auburn football celebrate their championship, they may want to take a second to absorb a couple of sobering realities.  First, the school got $21 million just for winning that one game.  Auburn’s coach, Gene Chizik is due for a multi-million dollar bonus and millions will flow into the pockets of administrators, coaches, commentators, and corporate sponsors, almost none of whom are black.

By supporting institutions like this, we are cheering for a system that uses black men up and sends them, without an education, into a world that is designed to destroy them.  So, it’s no wonder that while states like Alabama, Texas and Louisiana have the most impressive college football teams, they also have some of the blackest prisons in America and the greatest wealth gaps between black and white families. Mis-education is the common denominator when it comes to the shape of America’s plantations.

In timeworn Marxoid terms, Black labor is being “exploited”: Blacks play football for no money (at least officially); they enrich the school and their coaches; and afterwards, they aren’t even granted a degree for their efforts.  The major problem with this view is that Black graduation rates in high schools and at Historically Black Colleges are far lower than they are among the big sports schools. So, it’s difficult to argue that Blacks aren’t offered anything in return for their work on the football field. Athletic prowess is, without question, a sure means of social mobility.

And it’s not as if universities aren’t eager to educate and graduate Blacks.  One might look at the billions spent on affirmative-action and “diversity” programs of all kinds and conclude that uplifting Black people is the primary goal of the American education system, from top to bottom. It is successful, educated, wise Black people who are imaged as representing the still-unfulfilled American promise of “equality." Each White or Asian who achieves success has not moved the country closer to its collective goal of “closing the gaps.” The college football industry, which has turned talented Black athletes into heroes and role models for a primarily White audience, can only be seen as an integral part of this.

College football is an opiate for America, particularly Red State America, a way of recasting the world in an egalitarian image. Cam Newton, Michael Dyer—and Michael Vick—are exalted. And the White Americans who cheer them on are hardly willing to contemplate the reality of what they’re watching. Jim Harbaugh only hinted at it.