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The Mislav Brzoja Mess, And Why Northwestern Should Lower Their Admission Standards For Athletes

News broke yesterday that Mislav Brzoja, a three-star recruit who chose Northwestern over Marquette, Providence and Dayton among others, was denied admission to Northwestern, setting off quite a bit of debate, in part because Brzoja reportedly had a 4.0 GPA as a high school senior. No other details regarding his academic qualifications have come out (as is proper, the admissions department leaking anything like that would be outrageous), so no one knows the full picture. Personally, I don't think it's right to publicly speculate about the private transcript of a high school student, so I won't. I will, however, discuss the negative impact of the admissions office's decision and why some sort of change may be needed to Northwestern's admissions process for athletes.

The most obvious victim of this mess is of course Brzoja himself, who was fully committed to Northwestern and now finds his future uncertain. His plan was to go to Dayton should he not get into NU, but the admissions office took so long to make a decision that Dayton may no longer have a spot for him. That's really a shame, and a testament to the cutthroat nature of major college athletics. Hopefully he finds a home for next season.

As discussed yesterday, this also puts Bill Carmody in a tough spot. It's hard enough to find good players even interested in playing at Northwestern, and it has to be incredibly frustrating to win a recruiting battle with other top programs only to have the admissions office tell you it was all for naught. Carmody has obviously been the topic of much discussion around these parts, but even if you want him fired, stories like this one aren't going to make it easy for Jim Phillips to find a capable replacement.

My guess is that in normal recruiting situations, the basketball (or whatever sport) coaching staff finds out fairly early in the process whether or not a high school player will be able to get into Northwestern, and if the answer is no, the player is quietly informed and the coaching staff moves on. Unfortunately, Northwestern (along with everyone else who recruited him) didn't show interest in Brzoja until the spring of this year, and Brzoja committed without knowing if he'd get in, turning the situation into a public spectacle. And it's a public spectacle that may well hurt recruiting in the future, especially now that Brzoja may be squeezed out of a scholarship at Dayton. In any event, the next high school star whose admission to NU is up in the air will probably just go somewhere else where he'll be sure to get in, and no one could blame that player for doing so.

Although no one who isn't directly involved with the process knows exactly what Northwestern's admission standards are for athletes, it's obvious those standards are much more restrictive than almost all of major Division I. For one, there are cases like that of Brzoja and Faith Ekaktie, a four-star football recruit who was denied admission to Northwestern and ended up at Iowa. Secondly, Northwestern's football and basketball programs post gaudy graduation rates; nearly everyone who's admitted is able to graduate, and by all accounts those students are able to handle the coursework without having tutors do their work for them. Clearly, the admissions office only accepts athletes who will unquestionably be able to succeed in Northwestern's challenging academic environment.

Such an admissions policy is commendable, as its clear Northwestern athletes are actually getting something out of the free education they're receiving. As SB Nation's own Bomani Jones has frequently pointed out, just because you're given tuition and books worth $50,000 per year or whatever it is, that's not necessarily worth $50,000 per year to every college student, especially students who aren't capable of doing the work and are funneled into useless majors where tutors do all their work for them. To cite an extreme example, Dexter Manley's four years of free "education" at Oklahoma State probably weren't worth much to Dexter Manley, since Dexter Manley couldn't read.

Cases such as Manley's (less extreme versions are rampant in Division I athletics), in which athletes without the scholastic aptitude to learn anything in a college classroom are nonetheless admitted to college to play sports so that others can make money off theirs skills is nothing short of exploitation, and is despicable. I'm glad that Northwestern's admission standards for athletes are more than just the extremely low NCAA minimum standards, and that those athletes are truly getting a useful education. However, I'd argue that there's probably some sort of middle ground between the two extremes, and that Northwestern would be well served in finding that middle ground.

Northwestern revenue sports, despite modest improvement in recent years, are best known for being historically incompetent. The basketball team has never reached the NCAA tournament and hasn't had a winning record in conference play since the late 1960s. The football holds NCAA records for most losses, longest losing streak, longest bowl losing streak, and largest blown lead in a single game. There are many reasons for the school's struggles, but the most obvious factor is that Northwestern has by far the most stringent admissions standards of any school in the Big Ten. Northwestern chooses to recruit from a much smaller talent pool then their direct competitors, so their overall talent level is weaker than the Big Ten average.

As I said earlier, we don't know exactly what Northwestern's admission standards are for athletes. But we do know that Northwestern frequently rejects athletes who end up attending other Big Ten schools. We also know that the athletes who are admitted graduate at an extremely high rate without being clustered into academically dubious majors. So apparently, Northwestern only admits athletes whom they're extremely confident will be able to do the work. In my personal opinion, the admission standard for revenue sport athletes should be "will this student be able to manage the coursework at Northwestern?" The actual admission standard is clearly at least this high, and quite possibly even higher, given the extraordinary success rate of the students who are admitted.

In my opinion, Northwestern should be more willing to take chances on students who might not be 100% certain to be able to handle the schoolwork. Surely many of their future athletes will still easily succeed in the classroom, but I don't see a problem with admitting a talented athlete who might not be guaranteed to succeed. If he does succeed, then everyone involved wins. And if he struggles in the classroom, he can transfer to a school whose curriculum is more in line with his academic abilities. Such an admissions strategy for athletes would result in better players and thus more wins for the football and basketball teams (and by extension, more money for the school).

What's surprising to me is how many Northwestern alums support every decision made by the admissions office and are vehemently against lowering admission standards for athletes. And I'm not talking about alums who don't care about the sports teams, I'm talking about alums who care enough about the sports teams to comment regularly here and on Lake The Posts. Yet some of these alums are shocked that anyone could possibly be upset about a talented athlete like Brzoja who would have made the basketball team better being denied admission.

As for the issue of automatically trusting the admissions office, it is true that the admissions office sees the entire picture while everyone else is in the dark. But clearly, Northwestern isn't admitting enough good athletes to win games in the Big Ten, and it is reasonable to wonder if perhaps Northwestern could lower its admission standards, win more games, and still succeed in the classroom at a higher rate than their Big Ten peers. The problem is that by questioning the decisions of the admissions department, those alums are implicitly questioning their own admission to Northwestern, and no one wants to diminish their own accomplishments. This is the real reason why many alums are against lowering admissions standards: it diminishes the value of their degree. Not in a way that would actually negatively affect them economically of course, but in their own minds.

First of all, even dramatically lowering admission standards for athletes would in no way reduce the value of a Northwestern degree. I'm trying to picture such a scenario for a recent graduate, who is applying for an entry level job: "Oh, he went to Northwestern and had a 3.8 GPA in economics, must be a smart kid, let's bring him in for an interview....but wait a minute, a couple of football players at Northwestern were ruled academically ineligible this season, never mind, we're never hiring this kid." It's laughable. No one with even half a brain would besmirch an entire institution based on a couple of bad apples on the football team. Northwestern alums as a whole didn't suffer when Class of 1979 Rod Blagojevich committed a lengthy string of felonies as governor of Illinois, they didn't suffer when football player Dennis Lundy or basketball player Kenneth Dion Lee were caught shaving points, and they surely won't suffer if it were much easier for athletes to get into the school.

The other reason why many alums don't want to lower admission standards is that the current high standards are part of the Northwestern fan identity. We all know that Northwestern sports have been terrible historically, and no one wants to identify with a bad team. So even if the football or basketball team is getting blown out, fans can at least take solace in their players being superior students. But if the admissions standards declined, some alums would lose the one trump card they hold over the rest of the conference, even if it would make Northwestern's teams better.

The academics excuse loses quite a bit of luster when one considers the recent success of Duke basketball, Stanford football, Vanderbilt basketball, Georgetown basketball, or any other elite university who is still able to perform at a high level in major college sports. But when these schools have success, it's apparently because they lower their admission standards for athletes. There's that pervasive urban legend about how Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley couldn't have gotten into Northwestern (a rumor that originated from Northwestern), but beyond that, there's a sense that Northwestern's standards are better than anyone else in major Division I.

Take this comment from Hail To Purple's jhodges, left yesterday on Lake The Posts' story on Brzoja. I won't quote the entire thing, but here's the part I found most interesting:

In terms of comparing NU to other "peer" institutions, I’d like to say that I’m glad that NU does not do that in this area and refuses to give in on its admission process. Although nobody at NU will come out and say it, it’s clear that some of those other "peers" (Duke, ND, Vanderbilt, etc.) sometimes take flyers in their admission process. Yes, as a whole the athletes at those schools are pretty much on par with NU and other private academic-minded schools, but there are clearly examples of athletes being admitted by essentially waiving academic standards. While NU spends a lot of effort comparing the school (academic programs, admission rate, giving rate, tuition, etc.) to "peers" (which I personally hate- I would rather see NU spending time showing how it is really a unique institution), I am glad that they haven’t given in here

As to whether the assertion that Northwestern is the only major conference program who maintains academic standards is true, I really don't know the answer to that. But if it is true, then why is Northwestern still in the Big Ten? The obvious answer is that Northwestern makes too much money in the Big Ten to make leaving a good idea, but since Northwestern is a non-profit organization, they can't say that publicly. If academics truly are the top priority, and they're the only school among their peers who feels that way, shouldn't they try to join the Ivy League, or even go the University of Chicago route to Division III? Of course that isn't going to happen any time soon, but I have a sneaking suspicion that if Northwestern actually made the decision to leave the Big Ten because they felt their peers were all putting too much of an emphasis on athletics, that wouldn't go over so well with the same fans currently praising Northwestern's commitment to academics. I also can't imagine anyone wanting to give back a Big Ten title should the admissions standards be lowered to a level still above that of the rest of the conference.

All of this is not to say that it's impossible for Northwestern to succeed in football and men's basketball under the current system (well, maybe basketball). The football team has already had brief moments of excellent play over the past 15 years or so, and both programs have at least sustained mediocrity over the last four seasons, a step in the right direction. And the university does appear more committed to athletic success, as the recently announced plan to upgrade the school's decrepit facilities shows.

But maintaining long term success will be nearly impossible unless the talent level goes up. And the most obvious way to increase the talent level is to increase the available talent pool, and the way to do that is to lower the admissions standards. Northwestern either needs to do something different than what they've been doing for the last 50 years or accept mediocrity in the major revenue sports.