Athletes match up with student body

March 27, 2002|By Larry Atkins

PHILADELPHIA - They call the NCAA men's basketball tournament "March Madness," but many people are angry about the perceived failure of student athletes in the classroom.

Critics of the NCAA and student athletes are quick to point to low graduation rates for athletes, but they overlook something: On the average, these athletes are competitive with their peers in the regular student body when it comes to graduation rates.

At face value, the statistics appear to be grim when it comes to student athletes and graduation rates.

ESPN's Outside the Lines has reported that 36 NCAA Division I schools graduated zero percent of their African-American athletes from 1990 to 1994, although they had six years to earn a degree. These schools included Arkansas, Louisville, Cincinnati and Georgia Tech.

The most recent statistics indicate that the graduation rate is 34 percent for Division I basketball players and 48 percent for football players.

The Knight Commission, a panel of university presidents, conference commissioners and athletic officials, recently recommended that if a school failed to graduate 50 percent of its athletes, it should be banned from postseason play.

But NCAA statistics make no distinction between players who drop out for academic reasons, leave school for the National Basketball Association or transfer to another school and receive a degree; all count as non-graduates. Also, the statistics can fluctuate. Since the 1995-96 school year, 81 percent of Georgia Tech's basketball players have graduated or played in the NBA, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

These statistics also don't reflect the surprisingly low graduation rates for college students nationwide.

The national average for a six-year graduation rate for all students is 55.6 percent. Less than 50 percent of public university students finish school within six years. In 1999, 31 percent of Arkansas college students graduated in five years, well below the national rate of 42 percent for that year. No public university in Pennsylvania graduated more than 40 percent of the freshmen who were admitted in 1997.

According to the most recent NCAA statistics, 35 percent of black male basketball players who entered college in 1994 earned their degrees as compared with 31 percent of the black male student body.

Students, alumni and boosters aren't content with high graduation rates when their teams founder in mediocrity. Notre Dame football coach Bob Davies was fired even though his team had a high graduation rate, because he didn't win a national championship or go to enough major bowl games. It's hard to take seriously the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame's president emeritus and Knight Commission co-chairman, when he said, "We're not in the entertainment business, nor are we a minor league for professional sports."

Things would improve if the NBA would set up an extensive viable minor league system similar to Minor League Baseball. The NBA recently established an eight-team developmental league, but it has a minimum age limit of 20 (or 18 if a player was drafted and cut by an NBA team). If the NBA were to drop the minimum and expand the number of teams, the developmental league could be similar to baseball's minors. Instead of opting for college, high school student athletes could go straight to the minors.

Student athletes would benefit academically if the NCAA shortened the length of the seasons and practice time. Practice for Division I basketball starts on Oct. 15 and the championship game is played in early April. That leaves up to three months of the school year in which basketball players don't have practice or games. Given the season's length and the substantial amount of time spent on traveling for games and practices, there's little time for athletes to study.

While colleges should try to improve graduation rates for their athletes, as well as all of their students, we shouldn't overhaul the current system because of a few bad apple schools and coaches. When you compare the graduation rates of NCAA Division I athletes and the rest of the student body nationwide, there isn't a major difference. There's room for improvement, but that goes for everyone, not just the student athletes.

Larry Atkins is a lawyer and writer who lives in Philadelphia.

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