Josh Rosen is right – college football and school don't mix

Pat Forde
College football and basketball columnist

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen spoke truth to power in a Bleacher Report interview that was published this week.

“Look,” Rosen told Matt Hayes, “football and school don’t go together. They just don’t.”

He’s right. High-end athletics and school don’t mesh. Not easily, and not without major compromises along the way. Something always has to give.

It takes extraordinary commitment from an athlete, an academic support group, a coaching staff and oftentimes professors to make elite education and elite competition coexist. When that commitment isn’t present or an athlete is in over his or her head, corners can be cut. Majors are changed, academic fraud happens, transfers proliferate. Simply staying eligible becomes the goal.

Rosen’s stated truth will make school administrators uncomfortable, on both the academic and athletic sides of campus. It will flare up some fans and boosters who don’t like the youngsters pulling back the curtain on their autumn Saturdays. It will lead to a series of individual rebuttals from athletes who maxed out their college experience – exceptions to the rule – who competed at a high level while attaining a degree.

The question that rarely gets asked, is not factored into graduation rates, and is not part of any Academic Progress Rate equation, is this: In what area of study did you earn your degree? The one you wanted, or the one you accepted (or were steered toward) as a means of getting through school while still playing your sport? And how applicable is that degree in the real world?

The non-athletic universe is full of college students who change majors – their interests change, or they realize they weren’t good at what they originally intended to do, or whatever. The same rationale obviously can apply to athletes, as well. But there also are time demands, often tied to scholarship money, that force the hands of many student-athletes.

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen (L) sparked a conversation when he said college football and school don’t go together. (Getty Images)

It’s not a new issue. In fact, a decade ago, a coach at Stanford called out his alma mater, Michigan, for steering football players into easier majors than the general student population.

That coach? Jim Harbaugh, who presumably thinks Michigan is doing a better job in that area now.

Rosen comes at the issue from a player’s perspective, and his point resonates. He’s an Economics major at a prestigious academic institution (UCLA is tied for 24th in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of American universities). In his third year of college and entering upper-level courses, where the academic demand intensifies, so do the conflicts with football.

“It’s cool because we’re learning more applicable stuff in my major [Economics] – not just the prerequisite stuff that’s designed to filter out people,” Rosen told Bleacher Report. “But football really dents my ability to take some classes that I need. There are a bunch of classes that are only offered one time. There was a class this spring I had to take, but there was a conflict with spring football, so … ”

So, when you’re the starting quarterback at UCLA, spring football wins. This is how it works.

Since Rosen is likely in the most important months of a multimillion-dollar job interview for the NFL, it makes sense for football to take priority over Econ classes right now. Theoretically, there will be time for book learning to become the priority later.

The myth is that both can be simultaneously accomplished in a sort of harmonic convergence. Not often in the hardest of majors.

“If I wanted to graduate in three years, I’d just get a sociology degree,” Rosen said. “I want to get my MBA. I want to create my own business.”

Make no mistake, schools sell the you-can-do-it-all experience in recruiting. Then athletes arrive and, after a year or two or three, start to figure out that what sounded doable on the official visit is harder than it appeared.

Firsthand experience: my oldest son majored in journalism at Missouri, the most renowned academic program at the school. He also was a member of the swim team. Heading into his senior year, a choice had to be made: work the highest-profile sports beat, Missouri football, at the J-school paper, or continue swimming. Teachers told him, quite correctly, that it would be impossible to do both.

Reasoning that he had one year left to swim and a lifetime left to be a reporter, he chose athletics. That path also kept him from a meaningful internship during the summer of 2016. I think he made the right choice, and he graduated in May with honors – but he didn’t get the maximum journalism experience along the way.

Something had to give.

(He also had to practice on his own once a week to accommodate a mandatory journalism class that wasn’t offered at any other time – an arrangement that would be much harder to make work in a team sport. Try asking for that if you’re the UCLA starting quarterback.)

That Missouri J-school graduation? A class of 502 received diplomas. I counted two wearing gold student-athlete sashes at commencement, one swimmer and one volleyball player.

There are similar stories everywhere, as athletes try to serve two demanding masters.

Georgia Tech is a world-famous engineering school, a reputation that certainly attracts a segment of studious athletes. But according to the 2017 Georgia Tech football media guide, zero seniors (in terms of football eligibility) are engineering majors. Maybe this year is an anomaly, but it stands out.

Of the 108 players with listed majors in the guide – 78 veterans and 30 incoming freshmen – 75 are business administration majors or intend to major in business administration.

Let it be said: a business administration degree from Georgia Tech is undoubtedly a valuable thing. The point is not to knock the business school. But it’s not the university’s primary claim to fame.

Forty-three percent of Tech’s incoming freshmen football players say they want to major in a science: mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, biology, biochemistry, robotics engineering, pre-med or applied physics. The percentage of players on the roster who have been there at least one year and are majoring in engineering or another science drops to 29.

Less than half of those 29 percent (a total of nine players) are entering their third or fourth year at Tech. And of that nine, most have played sparingly or not at all.

The rare exceptions who major in engineering at Georgia Tech and play a lot: junior starting linebacker Brant Mitchell (mechanical engineering), junior starting wide receiver Brad Stewart (mechanical engineering), junior pass-rush specialist Anree Saint-Amour (industrial engineering).

Those guys are trying to make school and football go together at the highest level. Josh Rosen and a lot of other student-athletes know how hard that is, in a system not designed for both to coexist.

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