The NCAA Gets It Wrong Again

I love college sports. I love the passion and the tradition. I love that the athletes are still kids growing into adulthood, maturing before our eyes. I love that they are students, superficially no different from the rest of their classmates.
What I don’t like is the hypocrisy of college athletics. I try to ignore it, but it’s there. College athletics is big business and the money that’s involved corrupts. Athletic departments, shoe companies, coaches and television networks make tons of money off of the athletes and the kids don’t get a dime. Worse, at some schools, the players are paid, and the payments are hidden behind veils of deceit. Worst of all though is the academic corruption. Unqualified students are accepted into schools where they can’t succeed; paid tutors do the players’ work; grades are falsified; unearned diplomas are handed out on graduation day.
This academic corruption doesn’t happen everywhere, but it does happen. We all know it. The same coaches who preach about how their team is a family and they are their players’ surrogate fathers turn their backs on the one gift the athletes are given – the opportunity for a college education. Most elite athletes have been so coddled that they don’t really know how to learn. Many come from broken backgrounds where education was never stressed. It’s not that they can’t learn, it’s that they don’t know how and no one has ever made them try.
The truly good coaches, the Dean Smiths and John Woodens of the profession, take on this responsibility. They know that it’s more important for a young man (or woman – I’ll stick with men here for simplicity though) to learn to think critically than to learn to execute a pick and roll. It’s better to know how to research and write a term paper than to be able to recognize a two-deep zone defense.
The snakes of the profession, like Bob Huggins of Cincinnati who graduates approximately none of his players, are basically pimps. They send their players out to do their bidding and earn their money, giving nothing in return. The players don’t get paid (well, I actually I’m not convinced of that at Cincinnati) and they get no education.
So, now the NCAA wants to do something about this. It’s an honorable goal. What they want to do is replace the bizarre 5/8 rule with a rule that grants and denies scholarships to schools based on the academic records of their players. In particular, they will pay attention to the graduation rates.
First of all, getting rid of the 5/8 rule (basketball teams can give no more than five scholarships in one year and no more than eight in a two year span) is great. The rule didn’t really do any good. Teams were penalized when players left early for the pros or transfered. That the players left should have been punishment enough. Also, in this age of parity and players leaving early, teams really can’t stockpile deep benches of talented players, so limiting the number of scholarships really served no purpose.
Limiting scholarships based on academic achievement is a good idea. Tying it to graduation rates is a horrible idea. First of all, the rates are inherently flawed. Players who transfer in good standing and then graduate from another school count the same as dropouts. Incoming transfers don’t count either (actually the NCAA does count them, but in a separate category). Instead, they should just count them as a fraction based on the number of years at each school. A player who transfers after his freshman year and then graduates should count as .25 of a success for the first school and .75 for the second.
The more sinister side of tying scholarships to graduation rates is that some schools will simply give out undeserved diplomas. That already happens. Schools inflate or fabricate grades so that players stay eligible. How big of a step is it to just give out a diploma? Remember Dexter Manley who admitted that although he “graduated” from Oklahoma State he couldn’t actually read?
Look, the temptation is just too great. No athletic department will want their teams to lose scholarships and presumably not be able to compete. There’s too much money at stake. So, they’ll lean on the professors, tutors, TAs, deans and whoever else they can. They’ll be successful. You’ll see graduation rates magically climb, but it won’t prove much. In most cases, the increases will be legit, the result of increased efforts to get the athletes in class, but in some cases, it’ll be fraud, plain and simple.
If schools are going to bring in players who can’t handle the academic work, then I’d much rather have those players flunk out. At least then they’d learn a valuable life lesson. Giving out fake degrees to these guys not only fails to teach them things they should learn, it teaches them horrible lessons. Once they leave that school, unless they go on to the pros, they’ll find that life doesn’t really work that way. Once they are no longer eligible to dribble the ball for Old State U, reality will kick them in the teeth.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a better idea right now. I like that the NCAA is trying to enforce tighter academic standards, but they need a better way. They need to make sure that all schools and programs are giving back to the athletes. They need to protect the magic of college sports.

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