There are some bad guys affiliated with the University of Michigan Athletic Department. The Ann Arbor News has exposed one of the good ones.

In a March 16 report the newspaper tried to prove that student-athletes are funneled to Psychology Prof. John Hagen, who in turn gives them an easy A, which keeps them eligible for athletic competition. The news story cast Hagen as an Ed Martin-esque fan hell-bent on giving athletes the advantages in the classroom that would allow them to reach the Frozen Four and the Rose Bowl. In a peculiar attempt at gotcha journalism, the paper even printed a photograph of Hagen sitting several rows behind football coach Rich Rodriguez and recruit Terrelle Pryor at a Michigan basketball game.

On first glance, this conspiracy seems plausible. Michigan athletics has certainly been associated with far worse.

On second glance, there are the facts.

This scandal would be a lot more convincing if Hagen didn’t just happen to be someone who has been studying how people learn and helping them do so over a 43-year career in Ann Arbor. If Hagen were a mathematics professor who was allowing struggling athletes to do a few pre-algebra questions and leave his office with an A, that would be a problem. He’s not. He’s been researching learning since the 1960s.

One of his areas of interest is student-athletes, who are more likely to have learning disabilities and have time constraints because of demanding practice schedules. The independent study class the article focuses on is designed to help people who have trouble learning.

Is it any surprise that student-athletes would want to take his class and spread the word to their friends, who are mostly other athletes? The class seems relatively easy; the News says athletes averaged a 3.62 GPA in Hagen’s courses and a 2.57 in their other courses. Breaking news: Michigan students aim to take easy classes. I’ve done it. A lot. I’ve learned that just because a class is an easy A doesn’t mean students can’t get a lot out of it.

What would be damning is if athletes were given easier treatment in this class just because they play sports. This does not appear to be the case. After receiving a complaint from a jealous professor about Hagen, the University twice investigated him. Neither of the investigations, which appear thorough, uncovered any ethical violations. According to the second report: “There is not a pattern in the grades assigned to indicate that Professor Hagen treats student-athletes differently from non-athletes.”

The News’s article insinuates a scheme by Hagen and the two co-directors of the Athletic Support Program, Shari Acho and Sue Shand, to steer struggling athletes into his class. There isn’t much evidence of inappropriate collusion. Even if there were, shouldn’t athletes who aren’t keeping up in the classroom take a class that teaches them how to better do so – a class taught by an expert in this exact area?

I’m no Michigan athletics apologist. I’ve used this space before to criticize the juggernaut distraction that the Athletic Department is to the academic side of this university.

But the actual problem here is that the University admits far too many athletes who simply can’t keep up academically, especially given the pressures of practice and travel. The school’s academic standards are lowered, and the campus community condones it, at least implicitly, in exchange for crisp fall Saturdays at the Big House.

And then when the very people who are charged with making sure athletes keep up do their jobs – when they try to make sure athletes get something out of a world-class education besides how to weave through the defensive line – it’s a controversy.

That’s the real scandal.

You don’t need to do seven months of investigation, interview college kids under false pretenses and callously reveal confidential information about specific athletes to uncover it.

Karl Stampfl was the Daily’s fall/winter editor in chief in 2007. He can be reached at kstampfl@umich.edu.

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