I finally can get around to writing about Jan Kemp, the University of Georgia professor, who, even as Georgia was winning football championships, had the courage to point out that the football players were graduating utterly unprepared for post-collegiate life. Kemp herself put it best:
“All over the country, athletes are used to produce revenue,” she told The New York Times a month after the trial. “I’ve seen what happens when the lights dim and the crowd fades. They’re left with nothing. I want that stopped.”
For her honesty, she was fired, but successfully sued for compensation. During the trial, the academic failure of many athletes was exposed, leading to reforms at Georgia and elsewhere. Kemp also inspired other whistleblowers to come forward, which led universities to review the education of college athletes:
Proposition 48 came into being, the first legislation that set minimum criteria for standardized test scores and grade-point averages for freshman eligibility. While Prop 48 was justifiably criticized for relying too heavily on tests that were culturally biased, the rule was the right idea. After considerable tweaking, the concept is still in place today: To be eligible to play right away, student-athletes must qualify academically, based on a sliding scale between GPA and test scores.
How necessary was it? In 1990, I wrote a series of stories on academic failings in the University of Louisville athletic department. When then-football coach Howard Schnellenberger brought in his first recruiting class at the school, in 1985, it included a player who scored a 2 on the ACT. There were many others who scored in single digits.
I was able to learn about the appalling unpreparedness of that recruiting class because, by then, the NCAA had begun mandating annual academic-reporting forms. All it took was a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what kind of students public universities were putting in uniform.
A new level of accountability was reached and has been maintained, thanks in no small part to Jan Kemp.
“I think college sports is somewhat better off,” said Sperber, who publicly criticized Bob Knight, back when Knight was the coach and Sperber was a professor at Indiana. “I’m not saying it’s clean, but I think there’s been an attempt to get athletes a better education.
“In the history of college sports, she’s more than a footnote. Frankly, she’s more important than [U of G champion football coach] Dooley. Coaches come and go. She had a lasting effect.”
Not a bad legacy.