Discussion about criminal justice may be an unlikely topic during a team huddle for Temple’s football players. But for the 2007-2008 roster, nine of the team’s 19 juniors and seniors on scholarships are majoring in that field. Overall, 16 of the 76 Owls whose majors appear in the team’s 2008 media guide are in criminal justice.
When the NCAA changed its eligibility rules in 2003, the intent was to improve graduation rates among student-athletes. The pressure for athletes to remain eligible to play and progress toward their degrees has raised concern about the clustering of players in majors overly friendly to athletes.
“Football is very time consuming, so we have to find a major that corresponds with our schedule,” said senior Terrance Knighton, who is among the 47.4 percent of the team’s juniors and seniors majoring in criminal justice. “We try to find the major and teachers that will work with us around our schedule with football.”
A study conducted by USA Today involving 142 of the NCAA’s top-level schools showed Temple as having the highest percentage of football players who were criminal justice majors. Eighty-three percent of the schools had at least one team in which at least 25 percent of the juniors and seniors majored in the same study. “Extreme” clustering in certain majors was found in 125 of 235 teams, in which at least 40 percent of athletes on a team were in the same major.
“[Criminal justice is] a fast-growing field,” Knighton said. “A lot of football players take it, but I’m pretty sure a majority of students here at Temple take some type of liberal arts major.”
According to NCAA rules, Division I athletes entering school after Aug. 1, 2003, have to meet the requirements of the “40-60-80 Rule.” To remain eligible to play, athletes must complete 40 percent of their degree studies by the end of their second year of enrollment, 60 percent by their third year and 80 percent by the end of their fourth year. The percentages under previous rules were 25, 50 and 75.
Teams can lose scholarships and access to postseason play if enough athletes are not on track to receive a degree or do not graduate.
Requiring students to meet higher academic requirements for eligibility has unintentionally caused some student-athletes to choose majors that have been identified as “easy.”
“[Liberal arts] is easier. It’s more stuff you can relate to, and it’s easier to understand,” said Knighton, a defensive lineman. “When you start taking criminal justice, for example, you know when you graduate what type of jobs you’re going to have.”
Dr. Ellen Brown, director of the Student-Athlete Academic Advising and Support Center, said athletic academic advisers encourage students to choose majors that are challenging and rewarding.
“There is no easy path. There’s no stereotypical ‘athlete major,’ Brown said. “It’s a tough road to go through a major for four or five years in something that someone told you to take or that your teammates were all taking. We have lots in liberal arts. I wouldn’t say it’s because [liberal arts is] easy.”
Senior defensive back Richard Sheppard changed his major from entrepreneurship to criminal justice after his first year at Temple.
He said entrepreneurship was too challenging, and criminal justice better suited his interests.
“Since I grew up in the ‘hood,’ I kind of had an understanding of the criminal justice system,” said Sheppard, who plans to join the Pennsylvania State Police.
Sheppard said his decision to declare criminal justice as a major was influenced by his childhood surroundings in a North Philadelphia neighborhood.
“[Criminal justice is] not as challenging as entrepreneurship because the classes have to do with common sense. It’s something I understand more,” Sheppard said. “I can put it into my perspective more easily. Business is more challenging.”
In addition to football, the USA Today study involved rosters for men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball and softball.
Senior Steve Mury’s decision to study economics while starting as catcher for Temple’s baseball team was based on his interest in earning a “broad education.”
Mury decided to take economics in the College of Liberal Arts after switching his major from history.
He said liberal arts majors tend to be less academically demanding.
“A lot of business stuff you have to learn in class, and a professor has to teach it to you. Whereas history, you can just read a book, and it’s going to be the same exact thing in class,” Mury said.
Mury admits his teammates purposely schedule classes together, so they can assist each other with coursework throughout a semester.
“You know the guys that have the same major as you, so you try to get all of the business classes with them,” he said. “Say if I had to take a criminal justice class, I’ll find a guy who is a criminal justice major, and we’ll try to pick a class together.”
According to the study, three of six juniors and seniors on Temple’s women’s basketball team accounted for 50 percent of players majoring in business.
The study found athletic advisers inappropriately influencing students’ decisions on majors to be a result of the NCAA’s toughening its academic requirements.
Shanea Cotton, a senior psychology major and forward, said the athletic advisers at Temple supported her decision to major in psychology after she transferred to the university from Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fla.
“If they feel as though it’s going to be too much to take during the season, they’ll say ‘you can take this [class] this season or that [class] offseason,’” she said.
Brown said most majors are doable for student-athletes.
“There are ones that are more challenging. There isn’t any major that we say ‘you can’t do,’” she said, adding she has been at institutions where advisers would discourage student-athletes from taking academically rigorous courses.
“I’m not surprised. I’ve been at big schools where there’s a lot of money generating these programs,” Brown said. “It’s really disappointing that the backlash to the NCAA’s policy, which has best intentions for getting students to graduate, has been to steer students into easy majors.”
The demands from the eligibility rules adopted in 2003 force athletes to choose their majors earlier and complete degree programs to maintain eligibility.
“Me personally, I don’t like to pigeon-hole students into a certain degree program,” said Rebekah Gingras, a senior academic adviser in the Student-Athlete Academic Advising and Support Center.
“Unfortunately, because of the NCAA rules in degree completion, there isn’t much room for error.”
Gingras said students can fail classes, but “it comes down to, are they going to be eligible?”
“I’m open to anything, and I want the students to be able to do what they want to do,” she said. “If a student comes in, and they want to go to med school, I’m all for it.
“It comes into a little bit of an issue if they’re not passing their classes. If students aren’t being successful despite our best efforts in helping them, it comes to a point where we say ‘in order for you to meet your 40 percent, or 60 percent or 80 percent, you’re not going to meet that in this particular degree program.”
Gingras said the hardest part of her job is informing students they cannot pursue majors that really interest them without becoming academically ineligible.
“It’s heartbreaking to see students and their faces. It’s a hard choice on the student to have to make,” she said.
Despite selecting economics, a major Mury considers to be challenging, athletic advisers allowed him to do it “100 percent, no questions asked.”
Men’s basketball senior guard Semaj Inge said the university’s athletic advisers informed him he needed to pass every class in order to graduate on time once he decided to declare advertising as a major.
“I think the academic advisers are there to make sure you stay on top of those things,” Inge said. “I don’t think they steer you in any direction when it comes to picking a major, it’s really what you pick.”
After consulting with Inge about his major selection, junior guard Ryan Brooks changed his major from sport and recreation management to advertising.
“Toward the end of the [sport and recreation management], it becomes incredibly difficult to do,” Brooks said. “The time to get out and achieve the credits conflicts with the basketball major.”
Inge said whenever he has difficulty in his classes, advisers would provide a tutor if they couldn’t help him.
“[Changing my major] was something they guided me through, but they also understood where I was coming from and encouraged me to do it,” Brooks said. “They made it clear that the sport and recreation management major was going to get difficult and going to need a lot of my time.”
Under NCAA rules, schools are required to make tutoring and academic counseling available to students.
“When [student-athletes] look back on their career at their institution, it’s not just going to be about their athletic experience, hopefully,” Brown said. “If that’s all we’re focused on, then we’re missing the ball.”
Brittany Diggs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.