Students and sports

April 04, 1991

It seemed poetic justice that only days after a national commission made public its recommendations for rethinking "the management and fundamental premises of intercollegiate athletics," a basketball team of young men who can actually expect to graduate from a first-rate university claimed the national basketball championship. Duke's victory over the University of Kansas in the final won the school a long-sought national title, but it was the semi-final win over the University of Nevada-Las Vegas that avenged a humiliating defeat in last year's final -- and, more important, provided a welcome commentary on the recurring controversies plaguing top-level college athletic programs.

According to a recent study by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 95.9 percent of the recruited athletes entering Duke in the fall of 1984 graduated within five years -- including the two freshman recruits for Duke's basketball team. At UNLV, only 21.1 percent of recruited athletes beginning their freshman year in 1984 had graduated five years later; the school's one freshman basketball recruit was not among them. Granted, at each school the graduation rates of athletes was slightly higher than that of the student body in general. Even so, Duke's achievement proves that championship athletics programs are not incompatible with a rigorous college education.

The fact remains, however, that at most schools athletes do not achieve in the classroom and, too often, aren't expected to. Almost everyone agrees that Division I intercollegiate athletic programs make a mockery of the notion of student-athletes. The Knight Foundation Commission proposes that reforms come largely through university presidents' taking tighter control of athletics programs -- providing stronger guidelines under which programs operate rather than targeting particular abuses. It's the atmosphere in which athletics programs operate that counts, the commission says, and in the long run the only effective deterrent to abuses is an atmosphere of integrity and accountability.

Some commission members, including Maryland's Rep. To McMillen, say the recommendations don't go far enough, and they may well be proven right. College athletics are scandal-ridden for a good reason -- college athletics attracts big money and big egos. Too often a school's constituencies, from students to alumni to the officials who control the government's purse strings, care more about a team's ability to bring home a trophy than its members' prospects of earning a degree.

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