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Northwestern's former academic counselor is not afraid to speak the truth

The “Revenge of the Nerds” Sports Illustrated web feature Stewart Mandel wrote is required reading for any Northwestern fan. The details about the barriers faced in recruiting, the back-and-forth between football staffs and admissions departments, the negative perceptions of inflated GPAs and “jock classes” even athletes at rigorous academic schools like Northwestern, Vanderbilt Stanford and Duke regularly encounter – all of it paints a complete, and thoroughly reported portrait of some of the inner-workings behind the recent rise of “nerd” schools in the FBS. Northwestern is prominently featured. Seriously, if you’re reading this site and haven’t read Mandel’s (An NU alum with great insights on his alma mater) piece, go do it now. Done? Ok, cool.

Of all the interesting details and quotes from various coaches and players, there was one that stood out in a slightly chilling way, and it came directly from Northwestern athletics’ long-tenured former head of academic services, Margaret Akerstron.

"Sometimes, it's very easy to graduate kids," said Margaret Akerstrom, who retired in June after 26 years as Northwestern athletics' head of academic services. "Just make sure you put them in the right majors, give them more help than they should get -- not saying [other schools] are crossing the lines and writing papers, though that happens -- but they're babying them."

The quote was used under the “Academics” subtitle to detail how student-athletes balance the time demands of major college football with rigorous academic curriculums, and Akerstrom makes an interesting point most college sports fans already knew to be true.

Revenue-producing athletes at major conference schools have long had to fend off outside assumptions of gift-wrapped test scores and grade point averages, academic counselor-crafted schedules, “generous” professors and other vague accusations that all hint at the overriding assumption that football and men’s basketball players rarely, if ever, take their classes seriously, and are essentially allowed to spend their four years on campus majoring in eligibility. Some athletes don’t, and should never, have to deal with these criticisms – Brandon Vitabile, for example, is one of the most academically accomplished athletes in the Big Ten. Former Northwestern offensive lineman Patrick Ward maintained a 3.94 GPA while taking mechanical engineering classes. Penn State senior guard Jon Urschel is an undergraduate trigonometry professor. There are outstanding exceptions, players whose scholastic endeavors are not, and should not, be subjected to the same doubts and presumptions other athletes routinely confront.

But the perception still exists on a broader scale among the general revenue-producing student-athlete populace. People will always separate student-athletes from the general student body and form specific opinions about how, in the midst of traveling and lifting and rehabbing, they ever manage to get through the same classes normal students struggle with each and every day – how athletes must be getting help from someone, or cheating, or finding some unethical expedient (some fawning, submissive, plaintive engineering student willing to complete a few problem sets if it means hanging out with football players, say) to keep their grade point averages at acceptable levels.

Outside of the four-school nerd population highlighted in Mandel’s story -- along with a handful of other distinguished institutions, including a number of the programs listed on Mandel's GSR wins percentage chart -- the association between revenue-producing athletes and unethical academic practices is much stronger; we’re typically impressed when athletes with high GPAs and multiple degrees are featured during game broadcasts, as if major conference athletics and 3.5 grade point averages are mutually exclusive. When academic accomplishment and athletic success are used in the same sentence, there is a natural inclination among students (and college sports fans generally) to assume something nefarious – tutors going above and beyond their stated purpose, teachers being overly liberal with assignment deadlines, inconsistent grading rubrics, you name it – is at work.

The blanket skepticism is so pervasive and so entrenched that most athletes' classroom exploits, fair or not, are almost never treated with the same respect as normal students' -- even if, as is truly the case in many instances, the mere fact some athletes actually are excelling academically without extra help while balancing athletic commitments (which, as Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany duly noted at his conference's media days, habitually exceed the NCAA's imposed 20-hour weekly limit) is truly something worth celebrating. Akerstrom, with three words – “though that happens” – suggests some of these criticisms are not as vague and fabricated as some might have once believed.

There are schools “crossing the lines and writing papers” for their student athletes. “babying them,” as she so candidly puts it it. Good on Akerstrom to not withhold the truth. There may indeed be some validation to the accusations; Akerstrom is certainly convinced, and her comments don’t help combat the perception.