Real student-athletes still playing

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has become a poster child for misbehaving college athletes.
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has become a poster child for misbehaving college athletes. AP

Big-time college sports have been in the news quite a bit lately, and too often for all the wrong reasons – usually having to do with academic scandals and/or player misbehavior.

The school ranked by most polls as No. 2 in the country in football, Florida State University, is using a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who under almost any other circumstances would have been suspended or expelled from school.

Only about half the Florida State football players, by the way, ever get a degree, according to an annual study done by Stanford University.

Meanwhile, it has been disclosed that the University of North Carolina, which has a reputation as a prestigious academic institution, has been handing out grades to athletes for nonexistent African-American Studies classes. The grades, all A’s and B’s, were recorded by a department secretary in order to keep football and basketball players eligible.

And the University of Georgia’s star running back is under suspension for selling his autograph.

Those are among the most recent examples, but there are others, including a recent recruiting scandal involving the football program at West Point, of all places.

Nobody really should be surprised. Sports have such a grip on the American psyche, and the demand to win from alumni and fans is so great, that cutting corners, turning a blind eye or condoning cheating and bad behavior would seem to be widespread.

It’s enough to make a cynic out of the most enthusiastic sports fan, but that would be an injustice to the hundreds of young student-athletes who may not find themselves in the headlines but take both their sport and their classes seriously.

For every Jameis Winston, the troubled Florida State quarterback who has a string of misdeeds on his résumé, there are young men and women of good character and commitment working toward their degrees, behaving themselves and, in many cases, building toward careers they might not have been able to imagine without sports as their entrée to college.

I’m naturally suspicious of some of the schools in the South that rank at the top of college football rankings but have lax admission standards for athletes and show dismal graduation rates for their players.

I have no doubt, as an NCAA official said recently, that athletes at some schools are being funneled into the easiest majors. On the other hand, many fans no doubt think of the University of Notre Dame as little more than a football factory.

Yet Notre Dame boasts a graduation rate for football players of 94 percent, exceeded only by Northwestern University at 97 percent and Rice University at 96 percent. Stanford University’s rate is 93 percent. Those are all schools with tough admission standards and no-nonsense rules when it comes to academics.

Notre Dame, for instance, lost its star quarterback last season after he was caught cheating on a test. He was readmitted this year, but five players are currently under suspension for academic misconduct.

There are many questions swirling around college athletics. Should players be paid a stipend aside from their scholarships? Should they be allowed to unionize? Has TV and the revenue it produces become the driving force behind the major football conferences? Are players being lured prematurely from school by the promise of riches if they turn pro? It’s a long list.

But those are all questions for another time. Right now, we are in the middle of football season, basketball season is just starting, and I, for one, just plan to relax and enjoy – and root against Florida State no matter who the Seminoles are playing. And please get rid of that annoying “tomahawk chop.”

William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor of The Sacramento Bee.