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NCAA flunking its graduation test

WashPost: Everyone involved — athletes, coaches, school officials — must make college about learning.
HARRICK
Jim Harrick Jr. caused a stir with the easy questions on the final exam of his Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball class in 2001 at Georgia.John Harrell / AP file

The day a college president has the spine to stand up and say, "I will defend the athletic scholarship with my last breath and moreover sports have intellectual content and are consistent with education even when athletes don't graduate," is the day I will trust him or her. Until then, count me as a cynic who regards most NCAA officials and college administrators as phony pipe suckers and glad-handers who have only occasional moral spasms. Furthermore, put me down as a stone skeptic when it comes to this latest piece of cover-their-butts policy.

The NCAA college presidents are playing to the public again, hoping to assuage my cynicism and yours, probably for the sake of TV ratings, with a new "package of academic reforms." Starting in 2006, schools will have to stay above a still-undetermined "cut line" of graduation rates and other academic criteria, or risk losing scholarships and postseason money. NCAA President Myles Brand calls this a "sea change." My question is why does the NCAA need a "sea change" to ensure satisfactory academic progress, something that college presidents should have been seeing to all along on the campuses right in front of them, their own?

They don't need national legislation to know if a kid is making decent academic progress. So what do they need legislation for? To look good.

For every new rule, there is an unintended consequence. One potential consequence of this showy new "reform" package, other than the increased temptation for academic fraud, is this: Rather than actually educating students that most need it, the more honest schools will simply stop recruiting and admitting athletes who they consider too "at risk" academically. And that's too bad because we may lose some of the most gratifying success stories in sports.

The best and most meaningful byproduct of the athletic scholarship is that it's an opportunity for students who wouldn't otherwise get one. "I've got guys on Wall Street," says former Georgetown coach John Thompson. NCAA presidents, in their pose of stern reform-mindedness, may have just undermined their truest mission, out of sheer self-consciousness and buried guilt.

What college athletics need is not more "reform" but rather some realism and redefinition. Athletics and academics cohabitate uneasily on the modern Division I-A campuses, thanks to billion-dollar TV deals, and the complicating presence of the pro leagues waiting just offshore for the most talented undergrads. But it's wrong — and unhelpful — to insist that professionalism is tainting campuses, and that academic fraudulence is rampant, and to pin it all solely on athletic departments.

Sixty-two percent of all Division I student-athletes graduated in 2002, three percentage points better than the overall student body. The graduation rate in Division I-A men's basketball is at 38 percent; in football, it's 54 percent. While these numbers aren't fabulous, they aren't horrendous, and contained within them are legions of people who got degrees they might not have without an athletic scholarship. And that's not counting the scores of guys in the pros who didn't graduate but got something out of campus life, and gave something back, too.

When a coach with a history of fraudulent behavior such as Jim Harrick is employed by the University of Georgia, it's because a university president hired him. And when a coach's contract includes massive financial incentives for reaching a Final Four but not a penny in incentive for graduating players, it's because a university president wrote it that way. So let's put the emphasis and the spotlight where it belongs.

These so-called "reform" movements in college athletics usually blame the wrong people, provide cover for the real culprits, and obscure the real problems.

"It's legislation predicated on thievery and dishonesty," says Thompson, who turned out his share of college graduates and articulate men, regardless of what you may think of him and his occasional failures. "It's, 'You steal, and I steal, and we both know it.' They act on public perception, not the best interest of the kids."

When a university's grad rate is woeful, who gets blamed? Usually the coach, and the recruit from the blighted high school who is labeled a mercenary and an academic fraud because he uses college as a steppingstone to the pros. The president gets off scot-free and goes on preaching the evil of professionalism while he sells his school to ABC for a rights fee. So let me ask you something: Of the three, who is the biggest cynic?

Graduation rates don't tell the whole story, either. They only tell a very small part of it, and they are notoriously deceptive. They reflect absolutes. They don't reflect when a kid left a program because he was homesick, or if he was kicked out of a program for stealing in the dorm, or if he needed remedial work but blossomed into a real learner before he left. The more important question is, what are college athletics really for? The NCAA continues to wrestle with this, and it's not easy to answer, but what's certain is that they have a place on campuses and they aren't going away, nor should they. Play is an important, maybe even critical, way to develop certain kinds of intelligence. According to the human intelligence theory, athleticism itself may even be a brand of intelligence.

Howard Gardner, the Harvard professor and author of "Frames of Mind: Theories of Multiple Intelligences," believes intelligence can't be measured by one strict standard, because people have disproportionate strengths and weaknesses, and intelligence may be related to all sorts of factors, even ecology. Gardner posits there are seven or maybe eight types of intelligence, including verbal, musical, spatial, logical, and kinesthetic (physical). Is kinesthetic intelligence less worthy or valuable? Certainly not. According to Gardner, the seven intelligences almost never work alone.

And then there is the theory of Henry Luce, the founder of Sports Illustrated, who said: "Sport has aspects, too, of creativity. Man is an animal that works, plays and prays. . . . No important aspect of life should be devalued. And if play does correspond to some important elements of spiritual man, then it is a bad thing for it to be devalued. And sport has been devalued. It has become a lowbrow proposition. It does not get serious attention." He wanted, he said, "to put it in proper place as one of the great modes of expression."

Oddly enough, many NCAA college presidents seem to devalue athletics. They either don't really like them, or they like them way too much and for the wrong reasons, and in either case they fail to define their proper role in education and treat them as potential evils.

"They're afraid of what they'll be thought of," Thompson says. "If they would just look at it and see the good, I always felt they'd be more concerned, and more conscientious. Thousands and millions of kids have profited from the system. Academic people at some point have to be comfortable enough with what they're doing right. When presidents of colleges can look at their own institutions, and don't need to follow a group mentality, that's when this thing will be solved."