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Punting the Problem: When Athletes Struggle As Students

In case anyone needed further evidence of just how difficult it can be for students to catch up once they’ve fallen behind on their reading skills, consider “The Education of Dasmine Cathey.“

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Update: My interview with Chronicle of Higher Education senior writer Brad Wolverton — discussing the remarkable backstory to his reporting, and the challenges of access and objectivity — is now available at Ed Media Commons. This post first appeared on June 6, 2012. 

In case anyone needed further evidence of just how difficult it can be for students to catch up once they’ve fallen behind on their reading skills, consider “The Education of Dasmine Cathey.

This powerful (and often heartbreaking) narrative by Chronicle of Higher Education senior writer Brad Wolverton is the result of three months spent with Cathey, a football player at the University of Memphis, documenting his struggle to complete his college career on and off the field. Cathey managed to make it to his senior year despite being semi-illiterate and finds himself at a crossroads with the safety net of his athletic scholarship about to disappear.

Cathey is far from alone. Colleges and universities nationwide are confronting similar issues of student-athletes who are ready for the field but not for the classroom. In recent years the NCAA has stepped up its academic eligibility requirements and oversight, but significant problems persist. As Wolverton reports, University of Memphis officials were unaware of how widespread the problem was on their campus was until a reading test became a requirement for incoming athletes.

“’I was like, ‘Holy crud, I can’t believe how many kids are reading below a seventh-grade level,’” the university’s athletic director Joseph Luckey told the Chronicle.

Cathey still needs to complete a course this summer in order to graduate, according to the Chronicle story. He failed to advance after an NFL tryout and has since found work driving a truck and delivering beer.

Much has been written about insufficient academic standards for college athletes, particularly at top-ranked campuses where big games can bring in big money. But I don’t think I’ve seen a better example of how this system affects an individual student.

Cathey’s experiences also reinforce the message of organizations like the Campaign For Grade Level Reading, which is pushing for better collaboration among schools and community groups to improve literacy at all levels. Some research indicates that students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade have only a 25 percent chance of ever catching up to their proficient peers. By those standards, Cathey was well behind the curve long before he was recruited to play for the Memphis Tigers.

Indeed, the odds of academic success for African-American student-athletes like Cathey are particularly daunting, according to a recent study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. When looking at the 70 college football teams playing in the 2011-12 bowl games, the institute determined that the average “graduation success rate” was 20 percentage points higher for white student-athletes than for their black teammates. The one exception among the individual campuses was Notre Dame, where the graduation success rate was actually higher for black football players.

To be sure, many of Cathey’s struggles started before he even enrolled at Memphis. But it’s also interesting to read the comments on the Chronicle’s Web site, with some readers putting blame on Cathey’s inability to seize the opportunities put before him. Others saw a collegiate athletics system that exploits students, rather than helps them overcome their deficits.

“I’m not finding this a heartwarming s story,” wrote reader Maureen Basedow. “Too depressed about an education system that regularly graduates below-7th grade reading level from high school, and then admits them to college if they can do a fast 40. And when they’re there, they can take an entire year of courses without reading (or presumably, writing) anything. Is Memphis proud of this? Are any of us?”