Monson: Utah winning at the game that matters most

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark Harlan talks about his first week on the job as Athletic Director at the University of Utah in his new office at the Huntsman Center, Friday, June 29, 2018.

There’s too much hypocrisy in college sports.

You can’t even use the term student-athlete without double-clutching or doubling over in laughter or doubt. But every once in a while, news comes down the pike that reaffirms that that term isn’t a complete joke, that many folks are doing some things at the college level in a way that eases the skepticism.

That news is often ignored or minimized, but in the case of Utah athletics and academics, turning the spotlight on the successful mixing of the two is a worthwhile idea.

Utah sent out a release last week bragging about the academic prowess of its 20 teams, including 552 student-athletes, over the past semester. Those athletes achieved a school-best-ever fall semester cumulative GPA of 3.295.

Pretty cool. Pretty heartening. Pretty encouraging.

The release said this was the 25th-straight semester in which those student-athletes combined for a group GPA over 3.0. Moreover, that 3.295 came on the heels of a 95 percent NCAA Graduation Success Rate.

Hardcore skeptics might sneer at those numbers, believing that some of them are on account of the extra help these athletes get, as well as courses of study that may seem on the less-difficult-more-recreational side.

Even if that is true in some cases, and it most certainly is, the overall trend is a huge positive, one worth crowing about. A large percentage of these athletes work their tails off — for their sport, for their school, and for their grades. Doing both academics and athletics is considerably tougher than many believe, seriously challenging body and mind and discipline and drive. And for those athletes who use certain advantages to succeed in the classroom, getting help that can make a noticeable difference, good for them. Unless they are flat-out having others do their schoolwork for them, some of what they are exposed to is sinking in, expanding their minds, bettering their lives.

For most, they are challenging themselves in significant ways.

“I am incredibly impressed by the commitment and drive our student-athletes showed in the classroom while also excelling competitively in the fall semester,” said Utah AD Mark Harlan. “To achieve close to a 3.30 GPA across all sports is just a phenomenal accomplishment.”

He’s right.

Football was among the four teams that set new high marks for their cumulative GPA, up-ticking to a 2.925 group score, while winning the Pac-12 South. That team had more players selected as All-Pac-12 — nine — than any other school, six of whom were named to the All-Pac-12 Academics team.

The other teams that ascended to new records were women’s track and field (3.661), women’s basketball (3.407) and softball (3.474).

Seven teams blew past a 3.5 cumulative GPA standard, including women’s tennis, gymnastics, men’s skiing, women’s skiing, indoor and outdoor track and field, cross country. Individually, 78 athletes had 4.0 GPAs.

That’s laudable, considering the aforementioned challenge of training, competing, traveling, studying, handling stress, and conquering all of it. Eighteen of Utah’s varsity teams achieved a GPA of over 3.0. And 71 percent of all athletes made the school’s Honor Roll, 42 percent made the Dean’s List.

Wonder, if you must, about the legitimacy of such numbers. But unless Utah has descended into a pile of academic corruption, of which there is no substantial evidence, then this kind of success should not just be noted, it should be celebrated.

Harlan gave credit to Utah’s academic staff for setting a proper tone and expectation within his department, for building an environment in which student-athletes can thrive.

Former athletics director Chris Hill and Harlan, as well as coaches and counselors, should be pleased for all of the above. And most of the credit should go to Utah’s athletes themselves, who are understanding that beyond the win-loss record, beyond the individual accolades, beyond the cheers of the moment, the value of an education is worth their efforts, and, in most cases, much more valuable to them than anything that happens on the field, in the gym, on the court, on the diamond, on the snow, in the athletic arena.

Chalk one more win up for the Utes, then, a collective victory over the hypocrisy that plagues too much of modern college sports.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.