March 26, 2003

No Slam Dunk In the Classroom

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In Hoosiers, head coach Norman Dale tells his team, “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.”

Yeah right.

Someone will have to re-explain the definition of a winner to me. In the craziness of March Madness, I must have lost my dictionary because I used to think a winner was someone who excelled not only on the court, but off of it as well.

Poor Kristen, you must be thinking. You have such high expectations. Top college basketball players don’t have to excel off the court; they just need to score enough points to find a way into the draft so they get a ridiculous contract and tons of sponsorship deals.

According to yesterday’s New York Times, a new study showed that Sweet 16 teams had a graduation rate significantly lower than all other males on athletic scholarships at the same schools.

But don’t they need to pass classes, to graduate, to earn a degree?

You are mistaken again, the Sports Reality Gods remind me. Graduation rates of the top basketball schools are pathetic, and don’t even talk about Final Four teams. Come to think of it, have they even graduated a player in the last four years?

Actually some have, but not many.

In that article, author Frank Litsky explains that five of the 16 teams have graduation rates a third to one-half lower than the universities’ overall graduation rate for male athletes.

In another study described in the Oct. 18 edition of USA Today, no male player graduated from Oklahoma and author Steve Wieberg reported that at Maryland, barely one in five who arrive as a freshman on a basketball scholarship earns a degree.

The reason could be that the players recruited are academically faltering to begin with. Coach Gary Williams’ first Sweet 16 team in 1994 scored an average of 838 on the SAT, 92 points below the average for all other Maryland athletes matriculating that year.

Although these statistics are seen and published year after year, critics try to blame the studies. Instead they point fingers everywhere but at the programs and their players.

Some complaints may be valid, but the belief that the draft has wreaked havoc on statistics is not. Oklahoma hasn’t lost an underclassman to the draft since 1985 and Maryland, UCLA, Arizona and Connecticut have lost only two.

Academic woes are not only for Final Four teams, however. Harvard’s Patrick Harvey, a 2002 first team All-Ivy guard, left for academic reasons in February, the second time the fifth-year senior left the team. During the 1999-2000 school year, he took a leave of absence also because of poor academics.

Not long after that, Princeton junior Spencer Gloger was also declared academically ineligible.

But what can we do about it?

Myles Brand, the new chief executive of the NCAA has a plan. Brand wants the NCAA to have the power to punish college teams based on their players’ academic performances.

Although the actual methods have not been formulated, under this rule, teams would be evaluated continually on academic performance and progress. A poor report could mean the loss of scholarships or even elimination from postseason play.

Many Division I coaches disagree with Brand’s proposal, but why? Shouldn’t the coaches have their players’ best interests in mind? With college basketball serving as more of a profession than the extracurricular that it is, some restraints need to be put on the system. Students and coaches should be reminded that they are at a college institution to learn to do more than sign autographs and contracts. If and when Brand’s proposal is written, it will be a step in the right direction.

Archived article by Kristen Haunss