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Patty Kleban: An Open Letter to Bill O'Brien About Student-Athlete Expectations

by on March 01, 2012 6:00 AM

Get out your clipboards.

I haven’t had the opportunity to meet new Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien yet, but I’ve been impressed with his visibility on campus so far. Like the new basketball coach, Pat Chambers, it seems that approachability and “boots on the ground” in the community is the new way to generate excitement about a new coach and a new season.

With the recent addition of Penn State men’s and women’s lacrosse coaches Jeff Tambroni and Missy Doherty, men’s and women’s Icer coaches Guy Gadowsky and Josh Brandwene and PSU wrestling coach Cael Sanderson right before that, there are quite a few new faces in PSU athletics.

As a seasoned faculty member who has had a lot of student-athletes in my classes, I would like to share my thoughts on PSU athletics from the classroom perspective.

Dear Coach,

As a faculty member, I would like to welcome you to Penn State.   I am excited to support your success and to provide support for the student-athletes on your team.

Here are a few suggestions to make all of our lives easier.

First, at Penn State, we mean what we say when we say “student-athlete,” with the emphasis on the student first.  We learned through Coach Joe Paterno and the "Grand Experiment" that the terms student and athlete are not mutually exclusive. Check out our graduation rate if you don’t believe it.

Next, be aware of that student-athlete philosophy when you are recruiting.  The kid who excels on the court or on the field may look really attractive as you feel the pressure to do well.

Word of warning: If he or she doesn’t have the academic chops, don’t bother.

I understand that alumni donors and university administrators really like winning seasons.  On the other hand, if that student doesn’t have academics as a priority in high school, he or she probably won’t have it as a priority at Penn State.  I’ve seen many kids be recruited because of their skills and talent with a ball or a stick who would never have been accepted to a university based on their academics.

That student who doesn’t have the academic focus or ability is going to take a lot of extra time – yours, mine, his or hers and especially, that of your academic support team.

In an ideal world, playing time should be linked to GPA.  In the real world, we hope that those kids who aren’t making it academically won’t play.

If students show behavior or legal issues early in the process, cut them loose. Underage drinking, fighting, academic integrity issues or any other conduct problems early in their tenure at Penn State doesn’t speak well of their respect for you, their teammates or of the incredible opportunity they are being given with an athletic scholarship.

I know, I know … freshmen in general sometimes hit some bumps in the transition to a big university and everyone makes mistakes.  However, the public microscope that follows Division I athletes is a reality in this age of 24-hour news and social media.  Students who try to buck that early likely aren’t worth the trouble just because they can score a few points. 

Make sure that your support team is encouraging your athletes to work with the faculty and advisors in the student-athlete’s department or major.   The advisors in the Morgan Academic Support Center for Student Athletes are the experts with NCAA eligibility and a have broad understanding of the many majors on campus.  Advisors in the majors know the major from inside.   We should be the first line of defense for academic questions and the graduation plan.     

While I personally might be a fan of football or lacrosse, my job is to make sure the student is prepared for a career after athletics.   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to a student-athlete in advising that “I don’t care about ______.”  Fill in the blank for the sport. I want all of my students to find success beyond University Park.

Likewise, I’m going to keep that in mind when I’m helping the student find an internship.  An internship in the athletic department or with PSU sports camps might be really convenient and lets you keep the student nearby, but it compromises our integrity.  When he or she eventually applies for a job after the sport is over, I want that student’s transcripts and resume to speak of professional preparation, not of special circumstances, made-up classes for credits or internships that happen only on paper.

We don’t do that at Penn State.

Remind your student-athletes to comply with university policy and to let us know if they are going to be out of class for away games or team travel.

Don’t be surprised at the number of faculty who have no idea how important your student-athlete is on the court or on the field or who don’t know the athlete is Sports Illustrated famous.   Not everyone reads the sports section or the blogs. It’s not surprising to hear my colleagues say “Heisman Trophy candidate who?” when we are comparing class lists.

Similarly, there are faculty who refuse to acknowledge the athlete status of the student-athlete.  Some refuse to complete those mid-semester grading summaries that the athletic advising office sends us. Others will grumble about class absences for team travel.  For most, the student part of student-athlete is the priority.

We want the best for your student-athlete because we want the best for all of our students.

If we give your student-athlete a pass or an extra chance, it means we need to offer that extra chance to all students.  The number of student-athletes in our classes is usually pretty low.  The number of students who are balancing work, financial issues, extra-curriculars and personal pressures is not. If someone needs an extra hand of support, their Blue and White jersey will have little influence over that.

Early in my teaching career, I had an athlete in my class who was predicted to end up as a professional player making lots of money and fame to the university.

I could tell by his swagger and the reaction of other students in the class that this guy was going to be big (just ask him, right?). The kid could barely write a sentence.  As a new faculty member, I rehearsed what I would say when the coach or the athletic department advisor called me to ask me to fudge his grade.

I had heard the rumors from other universities about fake diplomas for student-athletes and papers written by tutors.

That call never came.

To the contrary, the Morgan Center staff was pretty clear – treat him like everyone else. That student’s fame and less-than-stellar professional career fizzled pretty quickly.  I wonder if he ever wishes he had worked a little harder and had stayed around to complete his degree?

We do it with honor at Penn State.

Welcome to Penn State, Coach. Penn State is a great place to have an impact on the lives and the learning of young people. We are Penn State proud.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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