Studying for real life

April 12, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The world held its breath.

Last August, when Ohio State's football season was about to begin, the status of Andy Katzenmoyer, a student-athlete studying linebacking, was in doubt. His classroom performance had been bad, so he had to take three summer courses. Would he pass music, golf and AIDS awareness?

He did. The world exhaled.

Now academic standards have again become a nuisance, as has a federal judge. He has disrupted high schools' attempts to educate athletes, and has thrown the recruiting of athletes by the 302 Division I schools into uncertainty, by declaring the NCAA's minimal academic standards illegal.

In the 1980s the NCAA was embarrassed by news stories about student athletes who could not read. Their problems were not reading "Finnegans Wake," but newspapers and job applications.

So in 1986 the NCAA said that to be eligible to compete as freshmen, athletes must have earned a 2.0 grade-point average in 11 high school courses and score 700 (out of a possible 1600) on the SAT. Many coaches charged that the SAT constituted racial discrimination because blacks average lower SAT scores than whites.

In 1992 the NCAA toughened the standards: Eligible freshmen must have had at least a 2.5 grade-point average in 13 courses. (Changes in SAT scoring moved the 700 threshold to 820.) Now, in a suit filed by two black athletes, a judge says the test component has an "unjustified disparate impact" on African-Americans.

Unjustified? The NCAA was unwise when, in 1972, it repealed the prohibition on intercollegiate competition by freshmen. But at least the freshman eligibility standards, which are minimal, have helped high schools press promising athletes to study.

Many schools bring to campus athletes unprepared for college work. The schools wring millions of dollars of entertainment value from them, then turn to the next crop. The used-up athletes, case studies in the meaning of "exploitation," depart, usually without a degree -- not even a spurious degree of the sort "earned" with courses such as those Mr. Katzenmoyer took last summer.

David Goldfield, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a member of the NCAA's Initial Eligibility Committee, says graduation rates for all athletes, and especially for black athletes, have risen markedly since freshman eligibility standards were implemented in 1986.

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mr. Goldfield notes that the standardized test component is crucial because the caliber of high schools varies widely, and because of grade inflation in high schools, particularly in inner cities.

One plaintiff in the suit against the NCAA got only 690 out of 1600 on the SAT (when 700 was still the NCAA's minimum) yet had a 3.5 grade-point average and ranked fifth in her high school class.

College football and basketball are, for many players, vocations, not avocations, and academics are unsubstantiated rumors. This is because there is a mountain of money at stake, such as the $1.725 billion CBS is paying to broadcast the NCAA basketball tournament from 1995 through 2002.

But even for most Division I athletes, professional careers are just tantalizing chimeras.

Fewer than one-half of 1 percent of all Division I basketball players get to the NBA. Many of the rest reach age 22 with a sense -- too often correct -- that the best of their life is over.

That may be true for an increasing number unless the appeals court undoes what that judge has done to reduce the incentive of athletes to prepare for real life.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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