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Football Favoritism at FSU: The Price One Teacher Paid – New York Times

Even so, two things are certain: By the end of 2013, Florida State had tightened standards for the online hospitality courses. And Ms. Suggs had lost her job and left the school.

The story of Ms. Suggs’s experience trying to hold athletes to the same standards as other students, pieced together from emails, other documents and interviews, came to light during research for a forthcoming book, “Champions Way: Football, Florida, and the Lost Soul of College Sports” (W. W. Norton). It offers a case study of how academic and legal imperatives often collide with the pressures of big-time college sports, at a time when academic fraud and sexual assault scandals are roiling campuses across the country, from Baylor University in Texas to the University of Mississippi.

Florida State was the focus of reporting by The New York Times in 2014 that examined the mishandling of criminal allegations against members of the championship football team, including Mr. Winston.

One of the players involved in Ms. Suggs’s complaint was James Wilder Jr., who had been arrested three times in the previous year and was on track to get, at best, a grade of D in one course. He emailed his professor as the summer semester was ending to say he needed a B “to keep myself in good academic place with the school.” The professor, Mark Bonn, who ran the hospitality courses, instructed Ms. Suggs to work with Mr. Wilder — he referred to him as “a starting star running back,” before noting that all students should be treated equally — and give him a chance to make up past assignments and submit missing portions of his final project, even though it had already been graded.

Ms. Suggs wrote that Mr. Wilder “should have done the work like everyone else” and objected to granting him special treatment, telling a colleague, “I am not offering this opportunity to other students.” The colleague agreed, summing up their mutual concern about Professor Bonn: “Trying to put a stop to his favoritism for athletes once and for all.”

Photo

Former Florida State players Chris Casher, left, and James Wilder Jr.

Credit
From left: Joe Robbins/Getty Images; Don Juan Moore, via Associated Press

Friends of Ms. Suggs said she was painfully aware of the stakes involved in filing her complaint, including the possibility that athletes found in violation of academic standards might be ineligible to play under National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. All but one of the players identified in her emails went on to the National Football League.

“It was a huge heartache for her,” said Barbara Davis, a fellow doctoral student and close friend of Ms. Suggs. “She told me how there had been tremendous pressure on her to pass these football players, even though they didn’t deserve it.”

Plagiarized Work

In June 2013, administrators at Florida State’s Dedman School of Hospitality circulated a memo to teaching assistants. The school’s online courses in “beverage management,” the memo noted, were popular with “a large number of student athletes” who needed to be tracked closely.

“Like the on-ground classes, we’re asked to review athletes’ progress on a regular basis and report how they’re doing to their academic advisers,” the memo said.

Professor Bonn was familiar with Florida State athletics, having done studies on the economic impact of Seminoles games. He also helped conduct a hospitality school fund-raiser with the former football coach Bobby Bowden and the Seminole Boosters, a private group that supports the sports program. Email exchanges show that football players liked dealing with Professor Bonn, who seemed attuned to their roles on the team, telling one to “keep in top shape!” and referring to Mr. Wilder as the “star running back.”

He also shared a Tallahassee defense lawyer with Mr. Wilder and other football players in trouble; the lawyer, R. Timothy Jansen, represented the professor when his second wife filed for divorce in December 2012 and obtained a restraining order, which was later lifted with no admission of wrongdoing by Professor Bonn.

Photo

Professor Mark Bonn, pictured in the center panel holding a wine glass, appeared in a photograph taken of a web page from the Florida State booster club called Old School. The top panel shows the former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, in sunglasses holding a helmet.

Professor Bonn’s interactions with Ms. Suggs initially were positive; he praised her work incorporating the concept of sustainability into a course on coffee and tea, according to emails among staff members at Dedman in May 2013. Ms. Suggs, a single mother working from home so she could raise her young son, also received good reviews from Dedman’s director, Jane Ohlin, who called her “absolutely fabulous” and said her “work ethic is above reproach.”

By midsummer, though, Ms. Suggs was growing frustrated. She said she felt pressure “to pad grades for the football players, and I told her I thought that was common practice,” said Phil Suggs, her estranged husband.

“But she said, ‘Not with me. If they don’t make it, they don’t make it,’” he said.

After a defensive end on the team, Chris Casher, handed in plagiarized work, Ms. Suggs alerted a program associate in the office, Aiden Sizemore, who sent an email to Professor Bonn saying the player had “copied every portion of his project” with no citations or sources listed. Professor Bonn allowed Mr. Casher to redo the work, explaining to him the meaning of paraphrase, that copied text needed quotation marks “before the first word and after the last word,” and that sources had to be listed at the end.

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