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Behind the Story: How Kent State tracked student athletes missing class

By Karl Idsvoog, Kent State University

How do you get into college if you can only read at a grade-school level? Last January, CNN’s Sara Ganim answered that question in a powerful piece of reporting. In a few short sentences Sara personalized the reality of college athletics at the University of North Carolina as she told the story of learning specialist Mary Willingham. Sara writes: 

"Early in her career as a learning specialist, Mary Willingham was in her office when a basketball player at the University of North Carolina walked in looking for help with his classwork. He couldn't read or write."

As Sara Ganim reports, the problem of college athletes lacking basic reading skills wasn’t isolated to a single player or to a single university.  

"A CNN investigation found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth- grade level. The data obtained through open records requests also showed a staggering achievement gap between college athletes and their peers at the same institution."

Following Sara Ganim’s report, the NCAA did not criticize universities for recruiting students who can’t read at college level. It issued a press release criticizing the CNN report and emphasizing that “Academic success of student athletes is a core priority for the NCAA and its member institutions.”

That statement became the operating hypothesis for a reporting project for the Computer Assisted Reporting Class at Kent State University. I told the students, “we are going to assume that what the NCAA states, that academic success is a core priority, is true.”

From a reporting standpoint, how do you go about testing the hypothesis?  For the students, it required asking a simple logical question. If academic success is a core priority, what checks would the athletic department be making? What public records should be available to examine that would verify what the athletic department is doing? Is the Athletic Department doing what it should be doing if it’s truly concerned with academic success?

College classes (real ones, not fake ones) are intense. The worst thing a student can do is to miss class. So if the NCAA’s statement is true, that academic success is a core priority, athletic departments would certainly be monitoring whether its athletes go to class. Keep in mind, when it comes to attending class athletics pose an immediate conflict.

The game schedule requires student athletes to miss class. What impact does that have on academic success?

Injuries can cause student athletes to miss more classes. What impact does that have on academic success?

Student athletes suffering concussions encounter a truly challenging problem. They can’t even study. With a concussion, the brain needs rest. The student athlete shouldn’t read a book or look at a computer screen.

How are athletic departments assessing what impact missing class is having on what the NCAA says is the core priority for its member institutions, academic success? 

Each student was assigned a specific university, and each submitted a public records request for the athletic department’s most recent analysis of classes missed.     

Despite all the medical evidence now coming forth on the devastating consequences concussions can have, Kent State student reporters discovered not a single university in the Mid-American Conference does any analysis of classes and study days missed due to concussion. 

How come?

Each student also requested an interview with the university’s athletic director. To see what they had to say, watch this piece produced by Kent State student journalist Jason Kostura. Jason now works for ESPN; he started just days after last spring’s graduation.

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