Politicians have time for BCS, not for degrees

College Football

December 06, 2005|By RICK MAESE

Tomorrow at 10 a.m., congressional leaders will gather at the Rayburn House Office Building in our nation`s capital. They'll sip their coffee and turn their elected attention to college football.

When I first heard this, I figured there must be some kind of bowl pool being run on the House floor. Now that I know what they're really meeting about - to fix a Bowl Championship Series system that has wronged no one this year - I'm even more upset. You should be, too.

While members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce grandstand and take turns making concerned faces ("Should I raise my left eyebrow or wrinkle my brow this time?"), the real travesty of college athletics continues to go unnoticed by government leaders.

Because we're talking about politicians, I'm tempted to mince my words, but let's be as straightforward as possible. Other writers, analysts and experts are going to continue to use the phrase "student-athlete."

Not in this space. Congress take note: For years, the NCAA has been kept afloat by "athlete-students" and until that changes, we should all start using the proper language.

Yesterday, a study came out of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports that reminds us that some of the best college football teams are made up of some of the worst college students. The study found that nearly half of the schools competing in bowl games this year graduate fewer than 50 percent of their football players.

Texas, preparing to play for the national championship against Southern California in the Rose Bowl, graduates just one-third of its players. Central Florida, this year's feel-good Cinderella story, and Texas-El Paso have similar numbers. Louisville also graduates just one-third - and only one-quarter of its black players.

You tell me why we should call them student-athletes. We're a society that prioritizes. Earning a degree isn't important enough to players and coaches, so we call them what they are: athlete-students.

We could spend the next year debating why athlete-students in revenue-generating sports are failing - I'd suggest most come from a social background that hasn't prepared them properly for college studies - but the numbers in yesterday's study are hardly new.

Dr. Richard Lapchick authored the report and has been dissecting graduation numbers for years now. He admits that, in years past, he's distributed the figures with a certain sense of hopelessness. Not this year, though.

"This is the first time in all that time period I've felt any kind of optimism that it will change for the better," he said.

The reason for sudden hope isn't that the numbers are drastically different or better than in recent years. They aren't. This time around, Lapchick used the NCAA's new Academic Progress Rate (APR) to assess the 56 bowl-bound teams.

The APR is a formula created last year to measure the athlete-students' success in the classroom and more accurately predict graduation rates. Unlike previous standards, the APR doesn't penalize a school if a player transfers to another institution. The new system also rewards a school if it graduates one of its own transfers. Put simply, it's the most accurate gauge out there.

But that's not what has Lapchick hopeful. The NCAA has finally entered the accountability business, tying sanctions to the APR scores. If an APR score doesn't indicate that at least 50 percent of a team's players will graduate, that team could be penalized and lose scholarships.

The NCAA's new APR accountability doesn't begin until next year, but if it was in effect right now, 23 bowl teams would be subject to penalties, including such schools as USC, Ohio State and UCLA. In fact, all five of the Pacific-10 teams in bowl games would likely lose scholarships.

"[Before] I'd put out the studies and schools could still go decades and not graduate a single athlete," Lapchick said. "But now, there's no question there's muscle behind these numbers because of these NCAA sanctions."

Lapchick has spoken in the past with congressional leaders about athlete-student graduation rates. But that was more than 15 years ago. Until this week's House committee meeting over the BCS, the only college sports issue legislators have concerned themselves with has been the hiring of minority coaches.

That's a great cause, but we're only talking about a handful of people who are directly affected. There are more than 350,000 young men and women who compete under the NCAA banner. Call them what you will, but fewer than 1 percent of them have any business putting sports above their studies.

It'd be nice if coaches and athletic directors reviewed these APR numbers and took a pro active approach. If you know sanctions are coming, you have time to avoid them. If top-tier schools with failing APR scores - think USC - want to continue fielding a full roster of athletes, they need to realize the Rose Bowl isn't the final goal. These teams need to keep working through May.

I hope the NCAA has solved its own problem. Next year, we'll be talking sanctions. The year after, we should be talking about improved numbers across the board.

And Congress? Let them talk about whatever they want. After all, when it comes to sports, that's all they're really concerned with: hearing themselves talk.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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