Are student-athletes steered toward less-rigorous majors?

On a witness stand in a Chicago federal courtroom in June, Kain Colter discussed the dilemma he faced as he tried to carve the best path for academic and athletic success. The former Northwestern University quarterback wanted to choose a major that would best prepare him for medical school.

But he had football commitments and — as has been presented in multiple media reports on Colter's role in helping his alma mater's football team to unionize — the time he could spend on the playing field would have been compromised by the courses required for typical pre-med majors. He ended up choosing psychology.

Was it even a true choice? Colter acknowledged during a National Labor Relations Board hearing in February that an adviser told him not to take a chemistry class needed for pre-med majors because it would interfere with football. He said he would not have been offered admission to the university if not for athletics. Football, Colter said, was the reason that he was at Northwestern.

Declaring a major — an important and often difficult decision for college students — brings even more complications for college athletes. In the past 30 years, academics and critics have questioned whether athletes are being forced into certain majors because of time restrictions due to their sports; whether many different athletes naturally choose the same majors at their schools; and even whether coaches or athletic departments steer athletes into certain majors.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviewed the declared majors for players on the Top 25 football and men's basketball teams, as ranked by The Associated Press, during the 2013-14 academic year. The review showed that 13 of the 22 top-ranked football teams that disclose majors and 16 of the 20 basketball teams that disclose majors have athletes clustered in areas of study.

A large number of football players at the University of Pittsburgh, which was not a Top 25 school but was included in the study for its geographic proximity, are enrolled in the administration of justice major. At Oregon, football players are bunched in a social science major, while there is a large percentage of history majors at UCLA. That fits the pattern for "clustering," a term that describes situations in which 25 percent or more of an athletic team are in the same major.

"We continue to see it growing year after year after year," said Amanda Paule-Koba, an associate professor of sport management at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., and Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent a memo to NCAA president Mark Emmert on May 20 seeking information about the NCAA's educational responsibilities. They brought up the topic of majors, asking Emmert what the NCAA is doing to ensure athletes aren't being placed in easy courses in order to maintain athletic eligibility.

In June, a lawsuit filed against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon and several other former athletes is scheduled to go to trial in California. They're seeking an injunction giving college athletes the right to sell their services, changing the NCAA's restrictive amateur model into a free market.

Part of the former athletes' legal strategy will focus on the big-business aspect of NCAA sports and its separation from academics.

Sonny Vaccaro, a former youth basketball maven who is aiding the plaintiffs, said the lawyers for O'Bannon will focus on the issue of majors in order to illustrate college sports' divorce from academia. They intend to show that athletes are too often directed into majors that lead to sports success for the university rather than educational development for the individual.

"It's not illegal, but it certainly doesn't stand when they put down 'student-athlete,' " Vaccaro said. "We're tearing down the term 'student-athlete.' "

Teams typically disclose the majors that their athletes are pursuing in biographies that appear on schools' athletics websites and in team media guides. In pulling data for a review of majors, it turned out not every school publicized its majors — including the national champion Florida State football team and the national champion University of Connecticut men's basketball team.

Most schools did not include academic information for underclassmen or transfers, as universities have different rules for when students are allowed _ or required _ to declare a major. Some teams had most of their players already enrolled in a major while others had smaller numbers.

An analysis of the 1,668 athletes whose majors were listed found:

— On the Pitt football team, 19 of its 51 players who had declared a major were enrolled in the administration of justice major. Another 14 majored in communications, meaning those two majors account for 64.7 of the declared majors on the Pitt football team.

— On the Baylor football team, 36 of its 79 players with declared majors _ or 45.6 percent _ enrolled in a general studies major program. The Vanderbilt football team had 23 of its 63 players with declared majors enrolled in a human and organizational development program. The agricultural leadership and development major at Texas A&M drew 20 of the school's 50 football players with declared majors.

— On the University of Cincinnati basketball team, seven of its eight players with declared majors were enrolled in a criminal justice major. The Saint Louis University basketball team had six of its 10 players with declared majors studying business administration.


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