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Column: In BCS, players often pursue same major

When Jay Finch arrived at Georgia Tech, he wasn't just interested in being a lineman for the Yellow Jackets football team. He wanted to study architecture, too.
    Then he talked with some student advisers, who gave him a dose of reality.
    "They were like, 'You can expect anywhere from 100 to 120 hours of studio time,'" Finch recalled. "I said, 'Oh, like in a month.' And they were like, 'No, in a week.' And I was like, 'On top of football?'"
    With that, Finch hopped aboard the M Train.
    At Georgia Tech, where the famous fight song proclaims "I'm a heck of an engineer," nearly 70 percent of the football team (43 of 62 players) has chosen to major in management, a business degree dubbed the "M Train" by those on campus who consider it an easier route to a diploma than the school's renowned engineering program.
    But the Yellow Jackets are hardly the only school where players tend to congregate in the same fields of study. There are four others universities where at least half the sophomores, juniors and seniors playing football are pursuing the same degree, The Associated Press found in a survey of the 68 schools in the conferences which receive automatic bids to the Bowl Championship Series, plus Notre Dame and Big East-member-to-be TCU.
    At Vanderbilt, it's human and organizational development (35 of 59). At UCLA, history is a big draw (27 of 47). At Wake Forest, there's been a gridiron run on the communications department (34 of 60). At Baylor, upset winners over TCU on the opening weekend of this season, expect to find a lot of big guys in general studies (27 of 53).
    This is not mere coincidence, of course. While it's natural for a selected group of students — in this case, male athletes — to be interested in the same classroom subjects, it's also apparent many are drawn to courses that are more accommodating to their Saturday pursuit.
    "I wanted to dedicate myself more toward football," conceded Finch, a sophomore center. "Yeah, I did take a little bit of the easier road. Management is still hard. You've still got to go to class.
    "But," he added, "at least I'm not up 'til 3 in the morning drawing."
    The trend is so prevalent it has its own name — clustering — and extends far beyond Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, UCLA, Wake Forest and Baylor.
    The AP survey, compiled from media guides, university websites and information provided by the schools, showed at least half the football players with declared majors at a dozen other universities are bunched in two fields of study. At 22 schools, 50 percent or more are pursuing a degree from a group of three majors.
    That means more than half of the schools at the core of major college football — 39 of 68 teams — have some level of clustering.
    At a recent summit hosted by NCAA President Mark Emmert, where a rash of rule-breaking was the main focus, university presidents quietly discussed the impact that clustering has on the academic experience for student-athletes.
    While the governing body has no intention of mandating more diversity in the selection of majors, it is looking at compiling more data on what players are studying, hoping it can be used to improve athletes' academic experience.
    The situation puts into focus one of the ever-present conflicts in big-time college sports: winning games, making money and keeping the boosters happy vs. providing athletes with a quality education and keeping up school standards.
    Georgia Tech, for instance, receives more requests from the football team than any other for special admissions — enrollment for those who don't meet the standards applied to the overall student body. But officials at the Atlanta school point out management is one of the most rigorous business programs in the country, requiring everyone to take two calculus courses and two lab sciences.
    "There's always going to be that tension," said Anderson Smith, the senior vice provost for academic affairs. "You've got to recruit who the best players are. But it's a much more heterogeneous population than what we have applying to Georgia Tech as regular students."

Vanderbilt is considered the toughest academic school in the football-crazy Southeastern Conference, which is usually cited as the reason the Commodores perennially wind up at the bottom of the league standings. And yet 35 of 59 non-freshmen were going for the same degree.

By the way, what is human and organizational development anyway?

"Leadership is one of the things that we focus on, and we have a very active and engaged student body," said Beth Shinn, who chairs the department. "My guess is any club or sorority you would look at would have an overrepresentation of HOD people."

In fact, human and organization development is the most popular major on campus among all students, including three of the last six student government presidents, according to Shinn. It's a wide-ranging field, requiring courses in calculus, economics, statistics and social sciences, as well as psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science and public policy.

"Our students are prepared for a vast variety of careers," Shinn said. "We don't do basket-weaving, thank you."

Chris Marve can attest to that. The senior linebacker is actually pursuing a double-major, combining human and organizational development with sociology. As part of his HOD curriculum, he interned over the summer at a Nashville law firm and has his sights on becoming an attorney.

"This major is definitely not just an athlete's major," Marve said. "People who come here are very intelligent and have a very high intellect, so it's not an easy major at all even though a lot of athletes do sign up for it. I think it's the most powerful major you can leave out of here with."

The majors winning the popularity contest vary from school to school.

At Cincinnati, 40 players picked criminal justice as their major. At Mississippi State, 30 players have declared in kinesiology. Sports administration is the choice of 28 players at LSU. Twenty-one Iowa players are majoring in interdepartmental studies, while 20 players Clemson went with sociology.

"We used to call 'em Mickey Mouse courses. They exists at every university," said Murray Sperber, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, is a professor emeritus at Indiana University and author of the book, "Beer & Circus: How Big-time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education."

"As an educator, my concern is: Are they getting a meaningful education?"

Some athletes seem baffled by the whole process of sorting out a major.

The vast majority of Florida players start out in social and behavioral sciences, which is actually a broad area of study that leads to choosing a major and getting a degree.

Tight end Trey Burton, a sophomore, wants to pursue a career in business. He isn't sure why he started out in social and behavioral sciences.

"I have no clue," he said. "I guess they just give you that when you get here and that's what you start out with. I really don't even know what that is. What is it? Social and behavioral? I don't even know what that is, to be honest with you."

Sperber believes the Academic Progress Rate, a landmark program set up by the NCAA to compel schools to move student-athletes into meaningful courses and show they are moving toward a degree, has actually led to more clustering of majors.

Schools can be stripped of scholarships if not enough players are making the grade. Therefore, he said, advisers tend to steer players toward less-demanding classes.

"The whole APR stuff puts a tremendous amount of pressure on academic advisers. It puts pressure on athletes to choose their major very early. It's the law of unintended consequences," Sperber said. "You think of a good defense, and immediately the offense is thinking of ways to get around it."

The NCAA makes no apologies for the APR, saying it has led to tougher academic standards and ensured that athletes from all sports graduate at a rate that matches or exceeds the student body as a whole.

"We need to remind ourselves that before the reform effort, some students weren't getting a degree at all," Lennon said. "The APR is incredibly significant. We have more young people moving toward a degree. We have many more getting degrees. That's the most important thing."

The NCAA has also done extensive research that shows the vast majority of athletes — more than eight in 10 — are satisfied with their choice of major.

And if they aren't, Myron Rolle advises them to make it a priority to take control of their academic careers.

The former Florida State star earned a Rhodes scholarship while starting at strong safety for the Seminoles. He took a year off from football to study at Oxford and is now trying to make it in the NFL. Ultimately, he hopes to become a neurosurgeon.

"I took a very proactive approach immediately when I got to school that I wanted to be in a certain major and I needed tutors and I needed this time for my teachers after class to be able to succeed and flourish," Rolle said.

"You have a lot of young kids, 18- and 19-year-olds, who want to do exactly what the coach says to get on the field. They go to college with the dreams of winning a national championship and being the best player they can be.

"But ultimately, after you're done with your school, you want to say, What did I gain from this school? Did I gain an education?"


AP Sports Writers Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., and Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.