Many basketball players and other athletes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, remain academically eligible to play only because of extraordinarily high grades in physical education courses, according to a study by two UNLV psychology professors.
Studying transcripts of varsity basketball, football and baseball players from 1978 to 1984, Profs. Joseph Raney and Terry Knapp found that their grades in P.E. classes were almost a full point higher than their overall grade-point averages.
"The data . . . reveal that physical education credits and grades maintain eligibility for many athletes," Raney and Knapp wrote in a memo to James Deacon, professor of biology and chairman of the university's Faculty Senate.
The athletes also scored significantly higher than their overall grade-point averages in ethnic studies courses and slightly above in education classes but fell well below the grade-point average in difficult academic subjects.
Athletes' grades were particularly abysmal in accounting, biology, English, history and psychology, the study found.
The situation is not unique to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas--it probably exists to some extent at almost every university where big-time basketball or football is played--but the Raney-Knapp study is unusual because it supplies specific information in an area usually clouded by rumor and speculation.
In an earlier study, Raney and Knapp, both veteran members of the university's psychology department, found that between 1978 and 1981, UNLV basketball players compiled a 3.7 grade-point average (out of a possible 4.0) in such physical education courses as "conditioning" and "theory of basketball," a 3.1 GPA in ethnic studies courses and 1.4 in everything else.
In their most recent study, covering 1981 to 1984, "physical education emerged as being even more significant than before," Raney said. "P.E. grading practices are so high that, in many cases, they are able to maintain the eligibility of the athlete."
Nevada Las Vegas does not require an athlete to maintain a specific grade-point average to be eligible to play, but students who receive 16 "negative points" (grades below 2.0) flunk out of school. As a practical matter, "you can't go substantially below a C (2.0) and stay eligible," said Brad Rothermel, director of athletics.
Raney and Knapp also found that former coaches and former athletic directors who teach physical education give much higher grades to athletes than do their colleagues.
For instance, basketball players achieved a 3.47 GPA in classes taught by former basketball coaches and 2.62 in classes taught by instructors who had never been either a coach or an athletic director.
Charles Bucher, director of the School of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, said the findings are "true in certain courses."
'Appear to Favor Athletes'
Bucher said that five of the 15 faculty members in physical education are former coaches or athletic directors and that "some of them appear to favor athletes in terms of higher grades."
These instructors believe that "athletes really deserve high grades," the director added. "They feel they spend a lot of time out there--in practice and on trips--and they should get an A."
Bucher said he and the "scholarly faculty" in physical education (those who are neither coaches nor athletic directors) "are concerned about it, but it's difficult to do very much about it."
The former coaches and athletic directors have tenure, Bucher said, and "there's nothing in our faculty code or in our catalogue that denies a faculty member the right to grade in whatever manner he deems appropriate. . . . That's an academic freedom that any instructor has."
70 Major in P.E.
Only about 70 of UNLV's 350 varsity athletes major in physical education, and Bucher said he is confident that those majors "follow a normal grade-distribution curve."
Raney said he and Knapp are "trying to get the faculty to fulfill its responsibility" by paying closer attention to the discrepancy between the grades athletes receive in physical education courses and those they get in more substantive academic work.
"I think a lot of faculty know about the situation but not many want to do anything about it," Raney said, because of the popularity of winning athletic teams in sports-minded Las Vegas.
More than 10,000 season tickets are sold for the UNLV Runnin' Rebels' home basketball games. The team, a consistent winner in the 11 years it has been coached by Jerry Tarkanian, has done much to win support for the university in the Las Vegas community.
Faculty Members Stirred
The latest Raney-Knapp findings, however, have finally stirred the faculty to action.
Deacon, the Faculty Senate chairman, has appointed a committee to examine the report. "It's a peer review . . . to see if the data support the conclusions," he said.
If they do, Deacon plans to refer the matter to the appropriate standing committee of the Faculty Senate: curriculum or ethics or academic standards.
"On any university campus, the faculty is the group that has to uphold academic standards," Deacon said. He suggested that the senate could disallow credit for courses in which a disproportionate number of high grades was awarded and that the university could discipline faculty members found guilty of such grading practices.
Whatever the outcome, Raney and Knapp "have done a real service to the campus," Deacon said. "If we keep cool about it, the information they are providing could, in the long run, make this a better university."
GRADING UNLV's ATHLETES
Studies by two University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professors found that UNLV athletes received much higher grades in physical education courses than in any others. In many cases the P.E. grades enabled athletes to maintain academic eligibility. The chart shows how grades varied from the mean grade-point averages (on a 4.0 scale) for individual students. 1. Physical education. 1,179 classes taken by athletes 2. Sociology. 316 classes 3. Anthropology (including ethnic studies). 289 classes 4. English. 278 classes 5. History. 141 classes 6. Communications. 128 classes 7. Economics. 124 classes 8. Mathematics. 122 classes 9. Business. 121 classes 10. Psychology. 114 classes 11. Recreation. 113 classes 12. Music. 113 classes 13. Hotel administration. 108 classes 14. Biology. 105 classes 15. Health education. 95 classes 16. Finance. 95 classes 17. Marketing. 87 classes 18. Political science. 84 classes 19. Social work. 77 classes 20. Elementary and Secondary education. 73 classes 21. Accounting. 70 classes