Both sides have points in debate on graduation

October 07, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Don't feel bad if you're conflicted about the Maryland basketball team's graduation rate. Or lack thereof.

It's perfectly reasonable to buy what Gary Williams is selling us about that stretch of time - 1997 to 2000, encompassing players from the 2002 national championship team - when players came, played, left and didn't get degrees within six years. It's just as reasonable to buy what the critics are saying about the unique place this program holds among every Division I program in the nation, the only school in the NCAA's compilation of graduation rates with a big, stinkin' zero attached to it.

Both sides are right. Yet recognizing that feels very wrong.

Williams told The Sun: "[Basketball players] have an opportunity to make more money from 22 to 35 than most people make ... from 50 to 60. ... Are you trying to say these people haven't been successful?" He's right.

Knight Commission member Hodding Carter III (who once taught at Maryland, which likely makes it hit closer to home) told The Sun: "Too many schools treat them essentially as disposable mercenaries as opposed to students. ... It's a betrayal of the kids' long-term interest." He's right, too.

What's wrong, of course, is the system of college basketball overall, as the NCAA runs it - but that's not exactly a breaking-news alert. Among the things you should feel comfortable doing with this is laughing at the idea of the NCAA setting criteria for academic success. That's like Tony Soprano grading law enforcement.

Williams' fellow coaches probably won't give him a trophy for his blunt assessment of how his program judges success and failure. Neither would the NBA, which decided a few years ago that higher education is vital to the progress of its incoming stars, but only one year of it.

And it is true that there are too many examples of people, athletes and otherwise, benefiting greatly from being in college without getting the degree, at least within the NCAA-sanctioned window. Do you think John Chaney's influence for 24 years at Temple should be measured by how many guys graduated on time (not many), or by how many lives he changed just by opening the doors to them and fighting with them and for them once they're in (just about all of them)?

Yet all of that doesn't get Maryland off the hook on this. Especially not Maryland. Of all schools, not this one, the school of Len Bias and the sewer that exploded upon his death, and the cleanup that took a decade and a half, the one led largely by Williams and athletic director Debbie Yow.

The school has scored high on the integrity meter lately: Players who get into bar brawls, are accused of assaulting women and copy quizzes get disciplined, reflecting a proactive approach rather than hide-it-and-pray. Still, no one should expect these alumni, especially the ones who lived through the academic messes of the late 1980s, to swallow this graduation rate news with a grin. This is on Williams' and Yow's watch just as much as the national title.

Even with that, though, Maryland gets off the hook if it's willing to concede, as no other school ever has, that it's in the business of training athletes. Or at least the big revenue-producing sports are. Those who make it through to the next level and graduate, too, great for them, because the piece of paper is more like icing on the cake.

But as long as Maryland and every other college exist to educate, then go ahead and educate. If they're going to get players into school and make classroom attendance and performance a requirement for playing - then don't cut them loose when their eligibility is done and later pat yourself on the back for having produced a pro player while insisting that the standard for graduation doesn't reflect reality.

In other words, it doesn't have to be either-or. That's the way this issue has been framed: You can either have a high graduation rate or that banner hanging at Comcast Center; pick one.

Sorry, there's no shame in being greedy. If this is the business you've chosen, and the one you've asked us to pay for, give us both.

It's far from just Maryland's problem, of course; it's every school, every conference, the NCAA, BCS, NBA and NFL. But ... let the kids who want careers as pro athletes go get them. Let the ones who want to get degrees get them. Those who want both can get both.

It has been done before. It has been done there. It likely will be done again, if the figures the Maryland folks are spreading around are accurate, about recent players who have gotten or will soon get their sheepskins. Face it: Six years is a fair chunk of time for a student getting a full ride to walk across the stage.

In the time frame in question, every other Division I program in the nation graduated at least one. Literally. Every single program. The ones run by Bob Huggins and Jim Harrick and Dave Bliss included. Every one. Except this one.

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