Is there any institution of higher learning that isn’t gaming the system to gain athletic advantage? I’ve come to believe the answer is no.
Harvard? Last year, before announcing that the university had uncovered widespread cheating, a Harvard administrator sent an email to the university’s resident deans, saying that potentially culpable athletes might withdraw from school temporarily. That way, the cheating scandal wouldn’t cost them eligibility.
On the other side of the country, the University of California, Davis, had long kept athletics in perspective — until 2007, when it inexplicably joined the big boys in Division 1. Vowing not to cut any “minor” sports, it did just that as athletic expenses soared. Promising not to lower standards, it abandoned that vow, too. After the UC Davis faculty athletic representative refused to support the application of “a talented basketball player with a questionable academic background,” she was removed from that position, according to a report by the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley. The basketball player was admitted.
Which brings us to today’s subject: the military academies. Incredibly, even the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy and West Point, charged with training the next generation of military leaders, systematically abandon their standards and admissions processes when a good athlete is within reach. Their highly questionable enrollment practices make one wonder whether the academies care as much about their mission these days as they do about winning football games.
There are two ways the military academies sneak in athletes who fail to meet their admissions standards. First, they all operate prep schools whose original purpose — preparing promising enlisted personnel for the rigors of an academy education — is long outdated.
Instead, the prep schools, which cost taxpayers around $25 million or so per year, are used for other purposes, including “redshirting” athletes — that is, stockpiling them for a year — when their high school records would prevent them from being admitted directly from high school. For instance, of the 300 students in the 2011 class of the Naval Academy Prep School, 110 are recruited athletes — typical for the other service academies. Oh, and they get paid a monthly stipend — which would seem to be a rather blatant violation of NCAA rules
When I talked to academy officials, they pooh-poohed the idea that the prep school was a place to sneak athletes in through the back door. Because athletics are so important, said a public affairs officer, “we consider every midshipman to be an athlete.”
But the statistics tell a different story. Nearly 80 percent of the 52-member Navy lacrosse team came through the Naval Academy Prep School; for returning football lettermen, the percentage is around two-thirds.
Meanwhile, West Point recently built a new $107 million campus for its prep school. An aerial shot of the new campus on the Military Academy Prep School website highlights its dominant feature: acres of lush athletic fields.
The second scam involves the nonprofit foundations that exist to give financial support to the service academies. Among other things, the foundations offer scholarships to athletes to go to certain prep schools that stress certain sports — with the proviso, of course, that they then attend whichever service academy the boosters are supporting. (In 2010, when a Naval Academy athlete who had gotten in via the foundation route tried to withdraw, saying “this isn’t the place for me,” the foundation demanded the return of his prep school “scholarship” money.)
Although Ed Wallace, a retired Navy captain who runs the Naval Academy foundation’s “athletic and scholarship programs,” denied that it directed athletes to certain schools — or that it singled out recruited athletes for financial support — a document outlining this contractual obligation is on the Naval Academy Foundation’s website. Or rather, it was. It was removed in 2012, when the NCAA began an investigation into the practices of the prep schools and the foundations. (Despite some pretty obvious violations of its rules, the NCAA dropped the investigation last year.)
Of course, these practices are troubling for reasons that go far beyond the NCAA. Is it really appropriate for our military academies to favor recruited athletes over more qualified candidates? Surely there’s a lot more at stake when the academies lower their admissions standards than when, say, Auburn does.
There is also the sequester. The Navy right now is in the process of canceling deployments, grounding airplanes and deferring ship maintenance. The civilian faculty members at the Naval Academy have been told that they will have to take a 14-day furlough sometime before the end of the semester. But I don’t see anyone suggesting cutting back on the prep school or the athletic teams.
Of course not. After all, Navy is joining the Big East in 2015.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.
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