STANFORD, Calif. -- Two years ago, a fledgling scandal began to shadow the Stanford athletic department. To anyone with a respectable amount of skepticism about the odd alliance between academia and elite sports, the story that broke in March 2011 failed to surprise. A group of student journalists reported that Cardinal athletes had access to a special list referring them to conveniently scheduled, reputedly lightweight classes.
The story's first hint that the most prestigious school in the West might not have sold off its soul arrived with the second quote:
"The classes on the list were "always chock-full of athletes and very easy A's," added Kira Maker, a women's soccer player who used the list her freshman year.
Easy A's? Really? They weren't just clinging to eligibility and thrilled to get a B? They had to overachieve? Wake me when someone finds assistant coaches churning out term papers.
Most elite schools have always had so-called gut classes, open to all students. (A Yalie circulated a hilarious guide a few years ago that sailed around online until it landed in an inbox connected to Gawker. Among the prize recommendations: Alcohol and Other Drugs in American Culture: "If you did not salivate the second that you read the name of this course, you seriously must be illiterate." For years, Harvard offered a maritime history course that beckoned undergraduates seeking to lighten their load; they affectionately dubbed it "Boats.") Stanford's mistake was sorting out courses for the exclusive benefit of athletes. It was a bad look, and a silly scandal.
The fact that fellow Stanford students busted the administration for the list, at a time when the school finally appeared to be settling into the upper ranks of college football, suggests that geekery still holds sway over an incipient jockocracy.
The odd thing is that the football players on Stanford's fourth-ranked team seem to prefer it that way. They brag about being overshadowed with regularity. Andrew Luck knew he had a sanctuary on the campus, which encouraged him to pass up the 2011 draft and remain a Cardinal another year despite coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to decamp to the 49ers.
His graduating class included Michelle Wie, and probably a future U.S. Senator, tech magnate or Oscar winner. Heisman winner Jim Plunkett's Class of 1971 included Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, and they shared the campus with actress Sigourney Weaver, from the Class of '72. John Elway, destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, graduated in 1983 with an astronaut, Scott Parazynski.
"I think if you talk to anyone and listen to their stories, you'll always find something interesting. But at Stanford, you find things you could never imagine," linebacker Shayne Skov said.
"My brother (Patrick) lived in a dorm with a kid who grew up on a tiger reserve in the middle of India, in sort of a national forest. He was home-schooled because the nearest town was 30 miles away."
I recently surveyed some of the players, asking them to name their favorite courses. I knew they'd come up with at least one that had a title I barely understood. Skov, the second player I asked, hit that mark.
"Engineering 50, which was 'Nanotechnology and Production Sciences,'" he said. He realized immediately he would have to explain.
It's about the science of building things up from a molecular level, he said, rather than carving out products from natural resources. "So if you make CDs, you build up the crystals on a sheet," he said, "and you end up building silicone crystals to make CDS. They cut the silicone into CDs."
I pretended I understood, and I almost did. I just couldn't imagine passing the class.
Offensive guard David Yankey and linebacker Trent Murphy both chose entrepreneurship classes that led them to design websites as part of a team, and the classwork received critiques from Silicon Valley venture capitalists. This is one of the perks of attending Stanford; ideas in class can and do become start-ups.
Yankey, who had an internship with a private-equity firm two summers ago, helped design a sports-media site called "Bench Press."
"It took us a long time; coming up with the name was probably the hardest part," he said. "We went through a lot of ideas."
When I told him the name of this site, he grinned. "I'm not going to lie, Sports on Earth would probably have been rejected," he said.
Murphy had interned for a virtual fan network called Sqor. In his entrepreneurship class, he and the three other athletes on his team (baseball player, swimmer and fellow football player) decided to create an online clearinghouse for dietary supplements that athletes prefer, screening them for NCAA or WADA approval and adulterations that might lead to positive drug tests.
Running back Anthony Wilkerson picked an improvisational acting class as his favorite, plus a philosophy course on the fate of reason. He also said he took a feminism class.
"It was fun to get out my realm of, you know, masculinity," he said. He estimated that the class included about 22 females and four guys, and after a quizzical look from me, laughed and said: "That's not why I took it."
Receiver Ty Montgomery tagged a class in modern political theory and said he wrote a paper on Edmund Burke and the value of traditionalism. Quarterback Kevin Hogan cited "Issues in Technology and The Environment,'' and talked about studying aquaponics in Oakland and organic farming in a Palo Alto community garden.
That didn't sound like an easy A, but what do I know?
The inquiry into the infamous list prompted the school to kill it. If these athletes still need a class that balances out their schedule and workload, they're smart enough to find it themselves.