Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Profiles in Advocacy: Linda Bensel-Myers, Jon Ericson, and Thomas Foster

from the 12/10/09 edition of "The Real Views"

If one accepts the premise that many black male student-athletes in the revenue generating sports of football and basketball matriculate and leave institutions of higher education with feelings of being exploited, then a desperate need exists to identify the counter-narratives of advocacy where student-athletes at least have the potential to have vastly different undergraduate experiences. For one, the very continued existence and integrity of organized amateur athletics depends upon it, and too, the NCAA should be invested in identifying these stories as crucial moments in shaping its history rather than as unfortunate marginalia. Finally, these stories should be recognized as instructive rather than destructive, and as important moments in higher education that occurred, for the most part, outside of the classroom.

One of the most powerful examples of such a narrative is the case of Linda Bensel-Meyers vs. the University of Tennessee. In 1995, Linda Bensel-Meyers was fired by the University of Tennessee because she blew the whistle on the improprieties she observed (including papers being written for student-athletes) while she was an English department faculty member and Director of Composition. In “Breaking Faith with the College Athlete,” Bensel-Meyers assails the quality of education offered to high-profile athletes, labeling it as “tantamount to institutionalized slavery” and claiming that NCAA institutions do not “provide an education nor reward the athletes for their lucrative service to the university.” In addition, reflecting on her own experiences at Tennessee, she brings attention to the exploitation of the college athlete done in the name of the so-called “student-athlete[1]” and the “institutionally-sanctioned fraud” and “institutional coddling” that under gird the assumption that elite athletes neither have time nor interest in academic pursuits, so they must be allowed to take “shortcuts” – in this case, plagiarized essays, but in others, tracking into majors, and independent studies. Rather than being hailed as a heroine advocate for student success, Bensel-Meyers encountered threats and hate mail, and ultimately, her termination, and was vilified at home and forced into exile. And she is convinced that the NCAA, as well as the University of Tennessee, is to blame for her exile, noting: "I don't think the NCAA investigators were interested in seeing the evidence I had[2]." She remains, however, a committed advocate, serving as director of the National Institute for Sports Reform and past Executive Director of the Drake Group.

Jon Ericson shares with Linda Bensel-Meyers a fierce commitment to student-athlete advocacy and even founded the advocacy group “The Drake Group” after he developed misgivings about American college athletics during his tenure at Drake University. In the mid 1990’s, Ericson, a provost and emeritus professor at Drake University, was asked to participate in NCAA “Self-Study,” or a mandated evaluation of departmental services instituted to ensure that member institutions meet the standards defined by the NCAA to continue their membership. The standards include everything from facilities, to Title IX compliance, to overall dedication to the academic, social, and athletic development of student-athletes. When Ericson discovered pervasive negativity regarding the faculty’s perceptions of student-athletes, athletes’ academic integrity, and the exploitation of student-athlete labor, and that many faculty were “sickened, shocked, and angry” to discover a lack of academic accountability for student-athletes, he provided this feedback in his study to the NCAA. Recommendations for reform were ignored by both NCAA and Drake Self-Study Group, and Drake maintained NCAA status. He later founded The Drake Group, an organization committed to exposing widespread corruption in the NCAA and calling for revolution of athletic administration, and an outfit that still calls for “integrity in the face of commercialized sport” to this day. The Drake Group remains a quietly influential force rallying faculty across the nation in their support of athletic reforms and meets annually to strategize and provide resources to its growing membership.

Unlike Ericson and Bensel-Meyers, many of the staunchest advocates of student-athletes are not high-powered faculty or cabinet members, but people who spend time every day in close contact with them, supporting them in their daily efforts as opposed to philosophical grounds or purely theoretical suppositions. Examples include parents of student-athletes who work closely with them to help them choose an institution that values not only their athletic production but their potential as citizens, and community members who provide support for students who struggle to acclimate to new environs while balancing all the stresses of athletic competition. Particularly for student-athletes whose focus on athletics supersedes their interest in academic pursuits when they arrive on campus, such advocates play a critical role in helping them identify resources, value satisfactory progress, and navigate successfully through college in ways often unseen by outsiders and insiders alike.

Individuals like Thomas Foster, the “Clubhouse Man” at Northwestern State University, have played this role without public or even internal recognition for decades. Though, on the surface, Foster appears only to clean the Field House, move tables and chairs across and vacuum the building’s floors, he has also served as confidant to coaches and student-athletes, has stepped in and represented the desires of student-athletes to coaches and administrators, and has helped many football student-athletes graduate from college and pursue professional football careers from a small Division I college in rural, North Central Louisiana. In the fast-paced world of college athletics where coaches and administrators turn over positions with regularity, he has been a constant at Northwestern State, offering advice, guidance, and at times, fiercely defending student-athlete interests with his own reputation and comfort level on the line. Even at an institution like Northwestern State which has largely avoided major NCAA infractions over the past decades, individuals like Foster play a critical role in interpreting the desires – athletic and cultural – of student-athletes while also encouraging student-athletes to develop into well-rounded members of the community and institution. Unlike the previous profiles in advocacy, not all instances of student-athlete advocacy end in exile and loss of livelihood – Foster was inducted into Northwestern State’s graduate letterwinner’s Hall of Fame in 2008, the highest honor given to a Northwestern State athletic staff member.

In the 1990’s, non-profit organizations used social movement strategies to call for widespread reform measures to be enacted by the NCAA in order to curb abuses, reign in irresponsible spending, and ensure the quality of education offered to student-athletes measured up to the education offered to all students. However, these organizations and this movement began with the experiences of brave individuals who pursued an agenda that I have defined as “student-athlete advocacy,” or, any means by which an individual or group of individuals engages in traditional social movement rhetoric/agitation to air grievances on behalf of student-athletes that ensure their intellectual and social as well as their athletic development.

[1] A term, she claims, which was coined strictly for the purposes of preserving the myth of amateurism among revenue generating athletes and preserving the NCAA’s tax-exempt status during Walter Byers three decades-long reign as NCAA President.
[2] “Tennessee prof takes on football team.” USAToday.com. 8 May 2000. http://www.usatoday.com/sports/comment/jzcol79.htm.

2 comments:

Doc B said...

The Thomas Foster's of the world are a gift to collegiate athletes. More of these counternarratives need to be unearthed and valued.

~wb said...

Thanks, Doc B. I agree, it has truly been a pleasure to work with Tom and to know him all these years.