TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- As the learning specialist working with the most academically challenged athletes at Florida State, Brenda Monk was confronted each year with recruits who would seem to have little chance of surviving on a college campus. Their deficiencies were laid out in transcripts and psycho-educational reports submitted during the admissions process.
Sometimes, the athletes knew exactly what they were up against. She recalls a conversation with one such player in her office at Doak Campbell Stadium.
"You might as well know right off the bat, I can't read," he told her.
"Then how are we going to get through these college classes?" she asked.
"It's easy," he responded. "You get to read to me."
And so she did, Monk says, spending about 20 hours a week by his side, turning classroom texts into passages to be absorbed orally, and making flash cards to improve his memory. He qualified for the help, she says, because he was learning disabled, or LD.
To some, such arrangements are a recipe for abuse -- just the latest angle athletic departments use to get, and keep, marginal students eligible for competition. Indeed, Monk, who was forced to resign from FSU in 2007 after six years, is accused by the NCAA of academic fraud and unethical conduct -- accusations she has asked the NCAA Division I Infractions Appeals Committee to overturn -- for allegedly doing too much work for athletes.
But as a former special education teacher and administrator who worked with the educationally disadvantaged in the Mississippi school system, the above case highlights the benefits of recognizing learning disabilities in academically at-risk athletes. She says a diagnosis of dyslexia or some other learning disability can be the key to leveling the playing field with students who arrive on campus with superior educational backgrounds and no neurological deficits.
"It's very difficult to overcome a reading disability," says Monk, who was a principal, counselor and special education teacher in the Mississippi school system before joining FSU. "It's not something that you can just overcome. It's like blindness. You can't just go in and give someone new eyes. You can't just go in and give someone neurons that are going to connect in their brain and get rid of their learning disability."
Certainly, the NCAA and colleges like Florida State offer an array of special services and waivers to help athletes with documented learning disabilities.
The accommodations start in high school. With a documented learning disabled diagnosis, athletes can get relief from the NCAA in meeting its minimum academic requirements for initial eligibility. They can apply for approval to submit SAT or ACT scores that were acquired through "non-standard" tests in which special accommodations were provided, and use high school courses for LD students to satisfy the NCAA's core-course requirements.
The NCAA granted 527 of these waivers to incoming athletes in the 2008-09 school year, up from 310 the year before, according to NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn. (There were 302 in 2006-07, 335 in 2005-06 and 338 in 2004-05.) She said more athletes are taking advantage of those waivers because in the past two years the NCAA has raised the core-course requirements (from 14 to 16 classes), and mandated that core courses be earned in the first eight semesters of high school.
If the prospective athlete still can't qualify with those adjustments in standards, the college they have signed with can apply with the NCAA for a waiver to grant eligibility anyway. Some of these waivers provide only partial relief, meaning that an athlete might receive an athletic scholarship and can participate in practice, but may not compete in games until meeting the NCAA's progress-toward-degree requirements at the end of his/her freshman year.
Once on campus, a learning disabled athlete can ask for an NCAA waiver that allows him or her to take less than a full course load (12 hours) in a given semester. And at Florida State, the athlete can be exempted from passing the state-mandated basic competency tests in math and English that all at-risk college students must take before their junior year. "A good number of athletes come through the waiver system," says Jennifer Buchanan, chair of the CLAST (College Level Academic Skills Test) Waiver Committee at FSU.
Beyond that, some learning disabled athletes drink from a fire hose of course assistance. At Florida State, classroom accommodations, such as note-takers and untimed tests, are dispensed by the campus disability center that is available to all students. But athletes also have the resources of a $1.5 million-a-year athletic academic support unit with 32 computers, private tutoring rooms and a five-station "Learning Center" for athletes with learning disabilities or deficiencies.
That's where Monk set up camp, working on papers and other assignments with what she estimates were about 65 learning disabled athletes. She tells "Outside the Lines" that more than a third of the football team, and three-quarters of the basketball team, had learning disabilities. FSU spokesman Rob Wilson did not respond to requests by "Outside the Lines" for information on the number of learning disabled athletes who were in the program when Monk left.
By comparison, experts estimate that 5 to 10 percent of the general adult population has a learning disability.
Fred Rouse, a former Seminoles receiver, attributes the prevalence of learning disabled athletes to an awareness of the resources available to those with such a diagnosis. He says some players are just lazy and looking for someone else to do their academic work.
"I think it's bull----," says Rouse, who started as a freshman in 2006. "You [as a high school athlete] have all of this time to prepare [academically] before you get to this level, and then when you get here, you play this punk role as, you know, 'I have a learning disability,' when that's not the case."
Some athletes arrived in Tallahassee with such a diagnosis, from psycho-educational evaluations conducted when they were in high school or earlier. Others, as many as 20 per year who were identified as academically at-risk, were referred by Monk after they arrived on campus to Casey Schmidt, a licensed psychologist based in Tallahassee. Schmidt evaluates these athletes for learning disabilities and is paid $800 by the athletic department for each test.
About 80 percent of the FSU athletes sent to him receive a learning disabled diagnosis, says Schmidt, who was hired after Monk arrived on campus.
Schmidt said "people aren't sophisticated enough" to tank his tests, which are cross-referenced and take the better part of a day to complete. But he concedes that he is surprised at the high rate of learning disabilities in the FSU athlete population he has evaluated. "That's a question mark I don't know how to rectify," he said.
One possible explanation is the assessment tool he uses. It's known as the "simple discrepancy" model, which looks for an imbalance between a person's IQ and educational achievement level. The FSU athletes he's evaluated, he said, often have normal or advanced IQs, but poor academic skills. In his estimation, any college student with less than a ninth-grade reading or math level is a strong candidate to meet the criteria for a learning disabled diagnosis.
Schmidt gives them an additional, cognitive test to minimize the rate of false positives, he said.
Still, the simple discrepancy method has been criticized by some experts as unreliable. A 2003 study by Florida State researchers Briley Proctor and Frances Prevatt found that that model "diagnosed significantly more students with LD than the other three [established] models." In fact, in testing of the same set of students, the simple discrepancy model produced a learning disabled diagnosis 46.5 percent of the time, nearly twice the rate of the most conservative model.
Based on their research, Proctor and Prevatt adopted a new model in 2006 for the LD assessments done at the FSU campus facility they run, the Adult Learning Evaluation Center, which is available to all students. The athletic department continues to refer athletes off campus to Schmidt, and his diagnoses are accepted by various campus groups that process waivers and provide LD services. They are required to, by laws prohibiting discrimination against the disabled.
"There's no universally agreed upon way to do these tests," Schmidt said.
That's especially true at the college level, experts say. Most of the regulation in the area of learning disabilities occurs at the K-12 level, because that's when students typically get evaluated for learning disabilities. (Beginning in July 2010, for instance, the state of Florida will move to a new model, forcing schools to attempt to re-mediate a student's difficulties with regular services before labeling them as learning disabled.) At universities across the country, set standards for evaluations are rare -- and the NCAA provides no oversight.
Recognizing an opportunity, the Seminoles hired Monk in 2001 to work with these athletes.
"Florida State couldn't be left behind," she said. "I think they recognized the fact that there were a lot of very talented student-athletes who were maybe reluctant learners or who struggled in the classroom who were not maybe academically as prepared to come to college as they should be. And so they were looking at that population -- how do we let this talent go by? Is there some way that we can have both? Can we have the talent and can we also provide them with some kind of help so that they can remain academically eligible while they are in school?"
Monk received a glowing review in her first year on the job. As she experienced more and more success keeping at-risk athletes eligible, she says she became a tool of recruiting, with coaches and parents asking her to work with athletes with increasingly severe learning disabilities. That's when she made what she calls an error in judgment, asking one basketball player in 2007 to input the answers to an online sports psychology test for a teammate who left a hard copy of the test on her desk.
"I was exhausted, totally exhausted," she said. "I wasn't thinking clearly and made an error."
That led to a Florida State and NCAA investigation that found improprieties in the athletic academic support program. An academic adviser was implicated for telling a tutor to provide answers to exam questions in an online music course. The tutor helped 55 athletes receive fraudulent academic credit by supplying answers to that test. Monk was accused by the NCAA of creating the study guide for that test, and for providing improper typing assistance on her computer for at least three athletes. She denies that she typed papers, characterizing her role as editing their work, which she says was appropriate given the needs of some academically deficient athletes.
"There was an atmosphere in athletics, particularly academic support, that was unacceptable," FSU president T.K. Wetherell said in an NCAA hearing in 2008. Wetherell had played college football under Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden, and was an athletics academic adviser early in his career. Both he and Bowden declined to speak to "Outside the Lines."
No NCAA-wide survey has been conducted on the prevalence of athletes with learning disabilities, said Corrine Corte, chair of the learning committee of the National Association of Athletic Academic Advisors. At Arizona State, where she is a learning specialist, she said less than 10 percent of football and basketball players are learning disabled.
So, being proactive about athletes' learning difficulties does not have to be a recipe for abuse, Corte said. At the same time, she said she is talking with the NCAA about drawing up rules for what constitutes acceptable support when working with these athletes. FSU officials told the NCAA that Monk was not permitted to provide some of the accommodations she was supplying, a charge Monk denies. She said that offering such support was part of her job description, and her manager, as well as officials at the campus disability office, knew how she was working with them.
"She's a wonderful person," said Rouse, who didn't have a learning disability but worked with Monk in study halls. "Very, very nice lady. I think it came to a point where it was almost forced on her also to make sure these guys were passing. And in the end, she ended up getting fired."
But not before Monk felt like she made a difference in some players' lives. She looks back to the player who announced at their introduction that he couldn't read, and so she would need to read to him. She says she arranged for him to work with the most helpful tutors, and drilled with him constantly on memorization and other basic academic skills. A lot of times, she says, he would be "lying on the floor," spent from all that brainwork.
Eventually, he received a degree in sports administration from Florida State. "And it was not something anyone did for him," says Monk, now a principal at a prison school in Lake City, Fla. "He did it for himself, taking advantage of all of situations. If you would have looked at his paperwork before you ever met him, you would have said, there's no way "
No way, that is, that someone with a grade-school reading level could graduate from a college where the average entering freshman was an honors student in high school.
" I said there was no way," Monk said. "He proved me wrong."
Nicole Noren, a producer for ESPN's enterprise unit, contributed to this story. Tom Farrey is a reporter for "E:60" and "Outside the Lines," and can be reached at email@example.com.