College Sports and Standards Debated Again

October 31, 1993|By C. FRASER SMITH

Readers of the sports page are treated every year to stories that might be filed under the heading Agonies of the SAT.

Star athletes are described grappling with the Scholastic Aptitude Test, not as a commentary on public education or the athlete's lack of attention to the books, but as a social and athletic melodrama: The Superstar's dream blocked by The Test.

The reader is kept current on the first, second and third attempts, the remedial and tutorial measures taken and the resulting success or failure. The extraordinary invasion of privacy appears to be justified as an indignity to be expected by future millionaires.

The stories appear as a result of minimal standards adopted in the best interests of the athlete, the sport and the nation's universities. It is a commentary on the state of basketball today that reforms should appear in the guise of humiliation for teen-agers.

And the confusion has taken another turn. It is time now for the coaches and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to endure another round of embarrassing debate and discussion.

The NCAA and its Presidents Commission are pushing the current minimal standards higher. Already, a player must post a C average on 13 core courses and score 700 on the SATs. (Players with lower scores can be admitted to college, but cannot play as freshmen, and must show acceptable grades before becoming eligible for athletic scholarships.)

The new standards will be on a sliding scale: if the player has only a 2.0 (C average), he must hit 900 on the SATs. With a 2.5 GPA, he needs only 700 on the SAT to qualify.

Nationally last year, blacks averaged 741 on the SAT, while whites averaged 938, according to the Educational Testing Service, which administers the tests. The SAT is scored on a scale ranging from 400 to 1,600.

While some say the new approach shows more flexibility, the nation's black basketball coaches are furious. They say the ratcheting up of arbitrary standards continues to deny opportunity to black athletes, shrinks the talent pool and diminishes the value of the product, college basketball.

Led by the charismatic and commanding John Thompson of Georgetown, the national Black Coaches' Association took its concerns to Capitol Hill. They met with Maryland Congressman Kweisi Mfume, head of the Black Caucus.

Surely this was a bold political stroke. Few college presidents command the same attention as Mr. Thompson. So the black coaches gained a forum for their grievances, many of which won considerable support.

They want more scholarships, an increase from the current 13 per Division I team to 15. They want relief from salary caps placed on pay for assistant coaches. And they want more minority representation in the NCAA and other basketball councils.

"We are in a battle," Mr. Mfume said somberly after they met, "to win the lives of our children."

Mr. Mfume's remarks certainly were welcome to the coaches.

But the congressman appeared in danger of reinforcing the idea that basketball remains one of the few ways up for black kids in America, a signal that risks further inflation of basketball's importance. The idea in this age of reform has been to emphasize the availability of other professional opportunities. Only one in 10,000 high school players get to the pros, after all.

And basketball scholarships are not the only economic route to higher education. Only a relative handful of the million black college students are athletes. Young men and women who want a college education may qualify for federal education grants, enter work study programs or borrow money. Many kids, white and black, are fending for themselves in precisely these ways.

The latest sports-vs.-academics upheaval occurs as a result of the Proposition 48 requirements imposed eight years ago to cope with an intercollegiate athletic system that operated on a thin cushion of cynicism: Standards did not exist, some whispered, because black athletes can't meet them.

Proposition 48 and other changes show this assertion is false. After some initial slippage in the number of admissions, black athletes are achieving the required SAT scores and graduating in higher percentages than before the standards were imposed.

Some opportunity probably has been lost. Players who might have been admitted before the standards were imposed lost out the first year. Others have fallen by the wayside since then, but the gains in retention of black athletes probably offsets the losses.

And players who have more aptitude do better when they get to school, feel more a part of the academic community and are implicit proof that the old racial stereotypes do not apply. Standards demanding progress toward graduation imposed by the NCAA have also helped restore some legitimacy to the desperate hope that academics and athletics are compatible.

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