Athletes failing in class

No more excuses: Maryland public universities must improve poor graduation rates.

September 25, 1999

EVERYONE who loves college sports applauds the opportunity afforded athletes who get scholarships to big time programs. Competition, travel and the challenges of university life in the NCAA's Division I surely broaden and educate. The joy of victory and the agony of defeat are lessons for life.

The growth of international basketball leagues -- with many more jobs for players -- represent another reason to nurture hoop dreams.

But the name of the game is still education -- and not just because the athlete will need another source of income some day. The nation's colleges and universities need to be held accountable for the bargains they make -- and too often break.

It's a question of morality.

Coaches promise athletes and their parents that old Siwash U. will make sure they graduate. In recent times, the coach and university made the promise knowing the athlete was not capable of holding up his end of the bargain: His grades and his SATs did not predict success particularly in rigorous, no-distractions-please programs. Division I is by definition a no-distractions league. Too often going to class is a distraction.

So, if the ballplayer doesn't do well in school, drops out and fails to graduate, universities must be held publicly accountable. Their failure rates need to be posted for the parents of other athletes to see when they're deciding where the latest All-American will matriculate. Coaches and boosters like to say athletes are like violin virtuosos: They don't need biology or comparative lit or even phys ed. They're going to make millions in the NBA or the NFL.

More recently, apologists say universities aren't given credit for the successes of athletes who transfer and graduate elsewhere -- or for athletes who end up in good jobs with a degree. These are the lamest defenses.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association chooses not to give a school credit for degrees earned elsewhere because its comparisons with general student populations only work when freshmen athletes are compared with freshmen at the same school. Every NCAA program is evaluated in the same way so if there's unfairness it's equal.

A recent survey showed that only 1 of 16 athletes who started school in 1992 at public universities in Maryland got a degree in conformity with NCAA rules. Other schools throughout the nation did much better.

Maryland public universities strive to be nationally ranked -- and are many fields. Their athletics programs must have the same goal. Coaches should hate excuses about graduation rates as much as they do missed field goals and foul shots.

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