Trust me, academics used to be important at Missouri

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Sean Coffey
  • Sean Coffey
When it's your alma mater, you listen harder.

On Wednesday night, NBC's Bob Costas hosted a "town hall" on college sports and its discontents, and there are so many of those that two hours was barely enough time to wave at a few of them. Of course, it wasn't two hours. Advertisers love big-time college sports on TV—even TV dedicated to exploring what's wrong with big-time college sports. So about a third of Costas's 120 minutes were turned over to sponsors and their messages.

And doggone it, in the time Costas had left he never managed to get around to a question that might strike you and me as pretty central: what role, if any, has the billions of TV dollars thrown at big-time college sports played in corrupting them?

But it was an interesting two hours. And nothing interested me more than an early segment on the subject of academics and college athletics. One of Costas's panelists in that discussion was Sean Coffey, a wide receiver for the University of Missouri football team from 2002 to 2005. Coffey said that when he got there, to his bewilderment he was told to major in agriculture—a subject that he, a city kid from Cleveland, had no interest in. The job of a player's academic adviser is to keep the player eligible, Coffey said; success after football enjoys lip service status as something that matters, but "it's evident and glaring that's not really the case."

Here's Coffey:

In 2007 Coffey talked about his Mizzou experience with Sports Illustrated's Angela Busch. She wrote:

Coffey says he entered a world of groupthink in which he and his teammates were blank-faced "assembly-line workers" doing whatever they were told. "I wasn't encouraged much by our coaching staff as a whole to do anything outside of football," he says. "Lots of [the] things I was encouraged to do, they were all to benefit the Missouri football program." Even though he was from the inner city and had no interest in farming, Coffey followed the advice of athletic department academic counselors and became an agriculture major. "All the athletes start in ag because it's easy," says Coffey. On the recommendation of an athletic-department adviser he eventually switched his major to hotel and restaurant management (another subject in which he had no interest). "Our academic people's job is to keep us eligible," he says. "They know every class and which ones are easiest."

At that time Coffey was out of eligibility, degreeless, and too banged up (a separated shoulder) to make it in the pros. But he told Costas that he eventually got his degree.

I listened to Coffey and thought about a couple of Mizzou football players from my era (the early 60s) I'd written about recently for the Bleader. One was Don Wainwright, who left Mizzou with a master's in engineering and later ran his own manufacturing company. Another was Andy Russell, who left Mizzou with an MBA, had a long NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and then became an investment banker. I wrote, only mildly hyperbolically, that a lot of Mizzou players back then "had IQs not that much lower than their playing weights."

All the TV money that's poured into college sports since then has changed everything. When it's made college sports programs think of education as an obstacle that needs to be finessed, it's hard to say that money's done anything to those programs but corrupt them.

Costas and his panelists had a lot to say about "one and done" basketball players, the ones who go to college for a year because the NBA makes them and then turn pro the first chance they get. Right? Wrong? Healthy? Unhealthy? I wish Costas had found some better panelists for this discussion. I'd like to have heard from, say, Kobe Bryant, who went straight from high school to the NBA because the rules then allowed him to, and Derrick Rose, who put in a year at Memphis because the revised rules didn't allow him to. Do they have any regrets? Do they ever miss the courses they didn't take, or took but didn't study for, or didn't show up for?

Because Rose had to go to college a year, he came into the NBA an All-American and highly marketable commodity, someone who'd shown he deserved to be the league's top draft choice. If he was OK with that and Memphis was OK with that, is there a problem? Did he ever look at the campus life being lived around him and think it might be nice to be an actual part of it?

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