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Navy's Row On Admissions

(Photo Credit: ESPN)

Most schools the past few weeks were preparing great sendoffs for their students. Lehigh had humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel talk at graduation, and hosted a slew of reunion events, for example.

At Navy, however, a graduation headlined by Vice President Joe Biden was not all hats flying through the air and talk of a strong military for now and the forseeable future.

Instead, an old sore was opened.

Thanks to the New York Times and a controversial professor at Navy who is out of step with many of his academic peers, the folks at Navy instead were spending time disavowing the "academies' march towards mediocrity". Eight days before athletes at Navy should have been celebrating years of hard work and toil, they faced the ridiculous charge that somehow their degrees didn't mean as much as their classmates'. (more)

It's hard to catalog all the dripping disrespect for athletes in the piece, but I will try.

THE idea of a football star receiving lenient treatment after testing positive for drug use would raise no eyebrows at most colleges. But the United States Naval Academy “holds itself to a higher standard,” as its administrators are fond of saying. According to policy set by the chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, himself a former commandant of midshipmen at the academy, we have a “zero tolerance” policy for drug use.

Yet, according to Navy Times, a running back was allowed to remain at Annapolis this term because the administration accepted his claim that he smoked a cigar that he didn’t know contained marijuana. (He was later kicked off the team for a different infraction, and has now left the academy.)

The incident brings to light an unpleasant truth: the Naval Academy, where I have been a professor for 23 years, has lost its way.

Let's start here. The "idea of a football star receiving lenient treatment after testing positive for drug use would raise no eyebrows at most colleges" because it's not against the charter of the school to have one of its members test positive for drugs.

Athletes in general are held to higher standards than most other students, because of the fact that they are unnaturally in the spotlight in representing the school.  If an athlete does test positive, it's generally taken care of by the coach involved - depending on the coach, it could mean nothing, a light suspension or booting the player from the team.  (As for regular members of the student body testing positive for drugs, well, if you kicked out all the kids who had tried drugs in school you probably wouldn't have much of a student body.)

Mind you, that's not to mean that Navy football nor the athlete in question, who earlier this year transferred to Texas State, gets off the hook here for bad behavior.  The athlete's excuse for breaking the rules was a flimsy one.  He also apparently got preferential treatment by the staff due to his football ability.  It's not right for him to break the rules, nor is it right for the football program to give him a free ride against the rules when others don't enjoy the same privilege.

But it's the conclusions that the author of the article, longtime Navy English professor Bruce Fleming, comes to as a result of this incident that veer from the ridiculous to the racial:

Instead of better officers, the academies produce burned-out midshipmen and cadets. They come to us thinking they’ve entered a military Camelot, and find a maze of petty rules with no visible future application. These rules are applied inconsistently by the administration, and tend to change when a new superintendent is appointed every few years. The students quickly see through assurances that “people die if you do X” (like, “leave mold on your shower curtain,” a favorite claim of one recent administrator). We’re a military Disneyland, beloved by tourists but disillusioning to the young people who came hoping to make a difference.

Meanwhile, the academy’s former pursuit of excellence seems to have been pushed aside by the all-consuming desire to beat Notre Dame at football (as Navy did last year). To keep our teams in the top divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, we fill officer-candidate slots with students who have been recruited primarily for their skills at big-time sports. That means we reject candidates with much higher predictors of military success (and, yes, athletic skills that are more pertinent to military service) in favor of players who, according to many midshipmen who speak candidly to me, often have little commitment to the military itself.

It’s no surprise that recruited athletes have been at the center of recent scandals, including a linebacker who was convicted of indecent assault on a female midshipman in 2007 and a quarterback who was accused of rape and dismissed from the academy for sexual misconduct in 2006. Sports stars are flattered on campus, avoid many of the onerous duties other midshipmen must perform, and know they’re not going to be thrown out. Instead of zero tolerance, we now push for zero attrition: we “remediate” honor code offenses.

Why is it "no surprise" that recruited athletes have been at the center of recent scandals?  Such a statement by its nature presupposes that athletes everywhere, at Navy or elsewhere, are by their nature predisposed to scandal.

I'm not so naive to think that athletes everywhere are angels.  But to stigmatize them all by saying it's "no surprise"  is ridiculous at best, and cheapens any person who has accepted a scholarship - athletic or otherwise - to play sports in any collegiate institution from Swarthmore to Stanford.

Fleming's real agenda item, however, comes through a few paragraphs later.

Another program that is placing strain on the academies is an unofficial affirmative-action preference in admissions. While we can debate the merits of universities making diversity a priority in deciding which students to admit, how can one defend the use of race as a factor at taxpayer-financed academies — especially those whose purpose is to defend the Constitution? Yet, as I can confirm from the years I spent on the admissions board in 2002 and ’03 and from my conversations with more recent board members, if an applicant identifies himself or herself as non-white, the bar for qualification immediately drops.

I can easily defense the use of race in admissions at taxpayer-financed academies.

Mr. Fleming claims that racial preferences at Navy are wrecking his beloved institution, especially in athletics.  However, the 2008 Academic Progress Report from the NCAA gives the USNA football team a multiyear Academic Progress rate of 978, putting it in the top 10% of all Division I programs.  To show how remarkable this achievement is, this year only seven FBS schools - Duke, Northwestern, Rice, Rutgers, Air Force, Miami (FL) and Notre Dame - can claim that their APR rate is 978 or higher.

In addition, the 1999-2002 graduation rate of football players (the earliest such data is available) is 93%. Most FBS schools would love to be able to boast such a graduation rate.  At challenging institutions like Army or Navy, whose students have to do so much more than those at other institutions, that's phenomenal. And when you consider that Navy's overall graduation rate is just about 77%, that's extraordinary.

This means the "product" of Navy's "affirmative action" policies in admitting students is one of the top retention rates in the country, and almost certainly a Top Ten retention rate in terms of schools that sponsor FBS football.  Not only are they retained - and by definition stay academically eligible - they also graduate at a clip that is higher than the regular academy graduation rate. 

Why is this the case?  The debate will rage on, but the data from Navy itself supports the conclusion that there's something wrong with the academic standards that somehow devalue the contributions of people that don't go to posh private schools or take special tutoring to get higher grades on the SAT's.  Academic standards aren't perfect.  It's up to schools to identify kids that may not have perfect test scores but have the drive, leadership and "stuff" to excel at a college or university - and in the case of athletics, also be able to balance the jobs of student and athlete.

But seeing the data, it's astounding how easy it was to "defend" Navy's admissions standards and to prove the central thesis of his argument as bunk.  Unless you believe that identifying qualified minority candidates for admission to Navy is a bad thing - and seeing them graduate at a rate higher than the rate of regular students, too - who can really argue with what Navy is doing when it comes to the big picture?


Fleming has been at Navy for over two decades.  With such a poisonous editorial, you openly wonder why he would want to stay at Navy if he feels that it is so out of step with his worldview on admissions.

Unfortunately, he's not the only academe to play on fears that athletes are a bunch of dumb jocks who only owe their presence in the Ivory Tower due to an unnatural ability to play football, basketball or any other sport.  In addition, his particular vision of a world with Division III athletics and rigid academic standards that rely on the tests like the SAT would result in a more stilted - and more Caucasian - academy, one where students from public high schools need not apply.  It's a world where admission to Navy would basically require SAT preparation courses, and expensive prep schooling,where the kids that figure out how to beat the system and gain admittance.

It's a dangerous mindset - and one that is not confined to Mr. Fleming. Fortunately, most college administrators do not agree.

Feinstein on the Brink also sums it up nicely:

There’s nothing wrong with fair criticism. I think there have been times when Navy has pushed athletes along who had to cut too many corners to stay in school. Kyle Eckel’s dismissal from The Navy (he DID graduate) has never really been explained and just recently two more football players who graduated (including another star fullback, Adam Ballard) were thrown out of the Marines for cheating on an officer-training test.

Navy needs to look at all of these cases and figure out where it went wrong and try to do better. Let me say this though: I have met lots of Navy football players through the years. Almost all are exactly the type of person you would want representing your country and defending your country. They’re bright and tough and I would put them up against the football players from anyplace as human beings—forget the wins over Notre Dame.

It’s easy to find a couple of jock failures at any school and harp on them as proof the school is going down the tubes because of the evils of jockdom. If Fleming really wanted to make Navy a better place, I’d respect him for that. Every college in the country has weaknesses and could use some improvement.

I don’t think that’s what Fleming is about. I think he’s about calling attention to himself and making a few bucks while he’s at it. We all try to make money. To do it by publicly attacking the kids who play football at Navy is not—in my mind—an honorable way to go about it.


Anonymous said…
Elie Wiesel is a brilliant speaker and writer, but he has never been a "Nazi hunter". That title goes to Simon Wiesenthal.

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