Lost amid the hand-wringing over whether Bobby Bowden should spend another year as Florida State University's football coach is a far more disturbing story. Documents from the NCAA's investigation into a 2007 cheating scandal reveal FSU's successful athletic programs came at the price of academic integrity. Jim Smith, the chairman of the university's board of trustees, should speak just as candidly about the Seminoles' academic indifference as he has about Bowden's future.
The same institution that last year boasted of football player Myron Rolle's Rhodes Scholarship admitted athletes who couldn't read beyond the second-grade level and needed intensive help to complete academic assignments. When even that wasn't enough, FSU employee-sanctioned cheating followed. The university's academic integrity, not its football team's won-loss record, should be at the front of the board of trustees' agenda.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association fought to shield documents connected to its investigation only to be required by the courts to make them public under Florida's open records law. The result illustrates once again the importance of transparency. A 347-page transcript of an October 2008 NCAA Committee on Infractions meeting lays bare an academic culture subsumed by the athletic department's top priority: keeping its players eligible.
"Student athletes didn't start off with the idea of 'This is how I am going to cheat.' We don't really believe they cheated. They got inappropriate help," Florida State University president T.K. Wetherell told the committee.
If only the Seminoles' running backs were as shifty.
The transcript includes a lengthy interview with learning specialist Brenda Monk, who lost her job with the athletic department after the scandal. Her testimony shows there was an underlying culture within the department aimed at propping up athletes incapable of academic success, including providing more assistance than given to nonathletes. She testified that she routinely helped athletes write outlines for papers and redraft their papers. She also kept collections of old tests to use as study guides and provided remedial reading help.
What's also clear from the transcript is that her supervisors had no trouble with what she was doing — until 2007 when she and two other employees allegedly went one step further and provided answers for an exam in an online music course. FSU found 61 athletes in 10 sports had committed academic fraud.
But FSU's coaches and administrators crossed the line long before then when they admitted athletes who weren't college-ready and then kept the lie alive with employees like Monk. Of course, universities must help students whose learning disabilities hinder intellectual endeavors. But the transcript suggests athletes received far more help than they would have from the FSU office assigned to support all learning disabled students.
Monk, her boss and others have been fired. Wetherell claims the institution is back on track. The latest athletic issue: Smith has called for beloved-but-now-losing Bowden to retire. And FSU is still challenging the NCAA's proposed sanctions in the cheating scandal, including erasing 14 of Bowden's victories. But Smith and Wetherell would serve FSU and its academic reputation better by accepting the punishment and then looking forward: Why is Florida State recruiting athletes who aren't capable of performing in the classroom as well as on the field?