This football season has been ‘the revenge of the nerds’

Published 8:28 am Tuesday, December 4, 2012

For ages, the stereotype of a football player — and especially a college football player — has been the “dumb jock.” It’s widely believed that many football players take joke majors in college, or have tutors and academic assistants that do the work for them. It’s no surprise that many college-football-themed jokes have an academic angle to them. (For example, “State University’s library was destroyed in a fire and all the books were lost. The football team was devastated; they hadn’t even finished coloring them in yet.”)

However, you can make the argument that this year has truly been “the revenge of the nerds” when it comes to college football. Notre Dame is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, and also has the best graduation rate when it comes to football players (97 percent). However, they’re not the only “brainy school” that is also having success on the gridiron.

The Duke Blue Devils, coached by former Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe, are 6-6 and are bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. Although Duke has had annual success on the basketball court, the Blue Devils have not been quite as successful in football. The Vanderbilt Commodores are 8-4 and headed to their third bowl in the last five years — that’s quite a feat for a team that had no bowl appearances from 1983 to 2007. The Stanford Cardinal (with an 11-2 record) are headed to the Rose Bowl and have turned into a perennial big-time-bowl contender, despite being hampered by some of the harshest academic recruiting restrictions in the nation. Even the Northwestern Wildcats (9-3) are headed to the Gator Bowl.

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Many other teams also have impressive players with academic credentials. No. 2 Alabama’s center Barrett Jones is not only a punishing offensive force on the field, but he also sports a 4.0 grade-point average and is a three-time Academic All-American. Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy was a Rhodes Scholar finalist. Myron Rolle, a former Florida State cornerback, actually was a Rhodes Scholar.

I have a few theories as to why academic standouts might also have success on the football field. First, much of football’s success at the highest level is based on discipline and studying your opponent. You can get away with overpowering players with sheer athleticism in high school, but by college the talent level is usually more even and that’s when the studious player can have the edge. Secondly, a hard worker in the classroom also has a hard work ethic on the field. Thirdly, academic success can allow a player to stay focused on the field and avoid bad mistakes.

I would like to believe that any fan of college football has to be pleased when well-rounded players (and I don’t mean in terms of their weight) have success both on and off the field. After all, isn’t that what we all mean by the term “student-athlete”?