Heroism of Jan Kemp changed face of college football

The passing of Jan Kemp at age 59 barely moved the needle this week in the sports world.

That's wrong.

She was never a star athlete or a championship coach. In fact, there were star athletes and championship coaches who disliked her a great deal, when Kemp famously cleared her throat and spoke up more than two decades ago about what was rotten at the University of Georgia.

But the impact of what Kemp had to say -- and of what she did -- resonates today. Her exposure of academic fraud within the Bulldogs football program helped set in motion a host of reforms that have made college athletics at least a slightly more civilized place today. At the very least, she helped expose the underbelly of a profitable beast and forced us all to examine it.

"She had an impact in convincing the world that the off-the-field stuff in college sports was important," said University of California-Berkeley professor and author Murray Sperber, who has written several acclaimed books on the conflicted coexistence of big-time sports and higher education. "And she took an enormous amount of s--- for it."

Kemp fought hard enough against powerful, popular opposition that she should be remembered and revered. What she did took more guts than slamming into the middle of the line on fourth-and-1.

For everyone who cares about maintaining education's fundamental role within the pseudo-professional world of college athletics, Kemp is a hero. For every athlete who has been helped toward a degree by enhanced academic support, Kemp is a hero. And for everyone who ever stood on principle in the face of institutional backlash, Kemp is a hero.

Before she shed light in the early 1980s on Georgia's preferential treatment for academically unprepared athletes (including grade changes in remedial courses), there was no such thing as national academic standards for freshman eligibility. There were no academic reporting forms documenting what kind of students schools were bringing in to play sports, or how many graduated, or how many maintained satisfactory progress toward a degree. There were no major financial commitments to helping jocks succeed in the classroom -- no state-of-the-art academic centers, and very few fully funded academic support staffs.

If schools didn't care whether their athletes got an education, nobody was there to call them on it. Until Kemp did.

Kemp's stand -- at a time when Georgia was at football's forefront under Vince Dooley, winning the 1980 national title -- got her fired as the English coordinator for Georgia's developmental studies program in 1982. The professor sued the school and won her job back along with a $1 million settlement, but it was the university's arrogance in taking the case to court that led to seamy revelations about misplaced academic priorities.

The Georgia scandal dovetailed with other significant off-field scandals of the same time: a Creighton basketball player who came forward to admit that he went through school there without being able to read or write; a South Carolina football player who detailed to Sports Illustrated his steroid abuse; major pay-for-play revelations that rocked SMU football and Kentucky basketball.

It was in that environment that Sperber became convinced there was an audience for his groundbreaking book, "College Sports Inc.," which examined the financial stakes of big-time athletics -- and the financial toll on the universities that sponsor them. He credits Kemp with convincing him there was an audience that would listen to his findings.

"When I first started researching, universities would deny that improper practices were ongoing," Sperber said. "Off the record, people would tell terrible stories, but on the record they wouldn't say anything. She did."

The combined weight of those 1980s scandals, coupled with an unprecedented investigative interest in sports journalism, coerced college administrators into re-examining their athletic departments.

"It forced the presidents to start thinking about reform. It started the whole reform movement," Sperber said. "Definitely, you can draw a direct line from those things to academic reform.

"Believe me, the NCAA wasn't going to do it on its own. Nor were the individual athletic departments."

Proposition 48 came into being, the first legislation that set minimum criteria for standardized test scores and grade-point averages for freshman eligibility. While Prop 48 was justifiably criticized for relying too heavily on tests that were culturally biased, the rule was the right idea. After considerable tweaking, the concept is still in place today: To be eligible to play right away, student-athletes must qualify academically, based on a sliding scale between GPA and test scores.

How necessary was it? In 1990, I wrote a series of stories on academic failings in the University of Louisville athletic department. When then-football coach Howard Schnellenberger brought in his first recruiting class at the school, in 1985, it included a player who scored a 2 on the ACT. There were many others who scored in single digits.

I was able to learn about the appalling unpreparedness of that recruiting class because, by then, the NCAA had begun mandating annual academic-reporting forms. All it took was a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what kind of students public universities were putting in uniform.

A new level of accountability was reached and has been maintained, thanks in no small part to Jan Kemp.

"I think college sports is somewhat better off," said Sperber, who publicly criticized Bob Knight, back when Knight was the coach and Sperber was a professor at Indiana. "I'm not saying it's clean, but I think there's been an attempt to get athletes a better education.

"In the history of college sports, she's more than a footnote. Frankly, she's more important than Dooley. Coaches come and go. She had a lasting effect."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.