What is the NCAA thinking?


A football locker room. A player… Nate… hears two teammates fighting around a corner. He goes to investigate.

“Is not,” says the first teammate.

“Is too,” says the second.

“Is not.”

“Is too.”

“Hold it, hold it,” says Nate. “What’s the problem here?”

“Well,” says the first player, “Tom says Wichita is a state, and I say it isn’t.”

“Jim,” says Nate, “we both know that Tom went to Wichita State. Therefore, Wichita must be a state.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The above conversation is partially correct. I can’t remember the character names or actors involved (so I just inserted Tom, Jim and Nate), but as I recall it this was an actual scene and pretty close to the true dialogue exchange from the HBO series 1st and Ten. Recently, the NCAA announced some changes to how it will hold institutions accountable for graduation rates. And when I heard what they planned to do, I was reminded of this exchange.

Ok… first the background…

The graduation rates at certain schools, and actually for certain coaches, have long been available for us to review (or at least seek out). In some instances, usually (and understandably) when the record is exceptional, it is prominently displayed in media guides and press clippings.

Over the past decade, I think it’s fair to say that the NCAA has been facing increasing problems. The NBA is a tremendous example, where the most talented players aren’t even going to college for a year or two. Players like Carmello Anthony are the rare exception, and LeBron James has become a norm.

Then there’s football. This year the NFL’s policy on entering the draft faced its most serious challenge to date. At one point it actually appeared as though several players, previously ineligible due to a rule concerning high school graduation dates, would be allowed to enter the draft. Instead, they were again declared ineligible just days before the draft was held. (The long-understood belief though is that physically football players just aren’t ready to make the jump from high school to the pro level, and need three or four years of play before attempting it.)

I should probably give you my take on college athletics right here. First of all, they are for all true intents and purposes a business. Second, there is a funnel effect in place. Not every athlete from high school will be able to play for a college team. There are far fewer roster spots on the college level. By the same logic, not every college athlete will be able to play professionally. Third, in many cases… business or not… if these players earned a roster spot they are being afforded a chance at an education they might otherwise not have had an opportunity to obtain.

Now… to the NCAA…

ESPN ran an article from an Associate Press report that explains most of what recently happened. (I have included the link to it in case you want some additional information. Since the original posting of this piece, a few other links have been taken down and are no long available: (1) CBS SportsLine posted an article. (2) MSNBC posted an opinion column by Steve Wilstein and a separate piece by Steve Herman. That should give you enough to look for if you wish.) Here are the basics…

The NCAA has enacted changes that will focus on academic performance levels by athletes. Most of the rules will begin in 2006, and some of the standards or criteria have not been established. However, schools will be required to meet or exceed a specified performance level or risk punishments such as the loss of athletic scholarships or school eligibility for postseason tournaments.

On the surface, this would appear to be good news. Colleges and Universities, after all, are institutions of higher learning. Facilities for education. Right? Of course! Makes sense that they should require athletes to study and pass courses in order to represent them. So how could holding the athletic departments responsible for their student-athletes getting good grades be a bad thing? Well… let me tell you in three scenarios/arguments/opinions…

Number one ~ Life is a series of opportunities. Some of those opportunities have a tremendous degree of flexibility in what an individual can or cannot accomplish. Other opportunities have little flexibility. But realistically, there is a word that is becoming less and less important in this world… responsibility. College is in most cases an opportunity for the student athlete. You don’t need to tell a walk-on athlete this fact, because they were admitted to the school as a student first and then tried out for the team. But for some players, they were allowed into the school as an athlete first. The opportunity to get an education from the school is there, and it is the responsibility of that individual to get that education.

The school doesn’t require the entire student body to pass their classes. And the NCAA isn’t asking the school to have a certain percentage of the complete student body to graduate. End result is that what they do instead is take a student’s money (or their parent’s money, or their scholarship money), deposit it, and if you don’t pass they kick you out. And by that same argument, if the student-athlete doesn’t graduate or uphold a certain grade point average, they should be sent along as well.

Number two ~ I have read a lot of articles trying to do some research on this subject and just what the NCAA is going to require. And you know what? They don’t say. It’s based on passing certain general courses and acquiring an appropriate number of credits to stay on pace for graduation. However, there is nothing about whether a person needs to have a certain major or what classes they need to take. Anyone that has heard about Jim Harrick Jr.’s test at the University of Georgia will understand how much leeway that gives an institution in making sure that an athlete remains eligible and the school meets expectations. (And if you haven’t heard about the test, check out this link.) Sure, there may be charges of academic fraud, but that can certainly be addressed internally.

And don’t just believe me about them not being sure about what will be required. Here’s what NCAA spokesman Jeff Howard had to say: “There are going to be many different factors. That is to be determined. They’ll take into account all the different things they choose to bring in.”

If you want to say that an athletic program has a responsibility to its participants, I could understand an argument building from that idea. But if you don’t define the responsibility, you can’t punish the accountability.

Number three ~ LeBron James never needed to worry about college eligibility or academic standards. Maurice Clarett stayed eligible at Ohio State for the football season, but all evidence of his history indicates he wasn’t too concerned about studying much. Everything I hear about Freddy Adu is pretty impressive. Freddy Adu is in his first year of professional soccer and turns 15-years old… 15 years old!… on June 2nd of this year. In short, the truly talented athletes aren’t worrying about whether or not they remain eligible for college play. They are looking ahead at their professional career.

So, I’m skeptical. I see this as frosting… as window dressing… as a smoke screen. Walk up to any official of the NCAA. Call them on the phone. Contact as many of them as you like. I’d be willing to bet just about anything… oh wait, this is college, we don’t gamble… that you can’t find one that answers the question “do you think academics are as important as athletics for the student athlete?” by saying “no.” It won’t happen. Because saying that is an admission that it is in fact, just a business… and a joke. They have to say that academics means something. These are student-athletes and, so goes the claims, the student part is first.

But what does the academic/student part really mean?

If the individuals don’t care about applying quality time to earn an education, I don’t know that it’s fair to require a program to tell them that they should. Of course I believe that all students should be able to select a personal course of studies, but if they don’t take advantage of the opportunities being offered, if they don’t accept the responsibility to study… or at least to attempt to graduate, then I’m not so sure it matters if you hold the school and its athletic programs responsible or not. Further, how can you say you are going to impose a system that recognizes academic accomplishments when you haven’t set a measuring guide for what has been accomplished? And finally, if going to college is going to be a hassle, the most talented athletes just won’t even attend.

In the end, the student-athlete doesn’t care. The more money at stake… meaning the bigger programs, then the more enticement to… ahem… make sure (wink, wink) the individuals are on track to graduate. And, the best players in some sports may never play at the NCAA level.

Sure, this sounds like a perfect plan.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com