For years the NCAA (National College Athletic Association) has been making excuses for the appalling graduation rate of Division I athletes. According to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), only 62 percent of athletes earn a degree. The NCAA recently disputed this figure, slightly. Whose figure is correct? Who cares? Both are awful.
The truth of the matter is that Division I athletes are generally engaged in gut courses and fail to meet even modest academic standards. Weight lifting, basket weaving and “communications” majors are hardly the basis of a liberal education. As B. David Ridpath, assistant professor of sports administration at Mississippi State University, bluntly says, “It’s too easy for colleges to water down their curriculums and let athletes take easy majors.”
Basketball programs had the worst graduation rate of any sport, with just 58 percent of players earning degrees within six years. At some colleges, only a tiny fraction of enrolled basketball players graduate, no matter how puny the academic requirements. Many of these athletes should not be in college at all. Far too many are there only to play basketball. In fact, student-athlete is an oxymoron. College means little more to many than the minor league from which they hope to land a pro offer. Yet only a very few “student-athletes” end up with one.
Graduation rates for Division I football players do not fare much better. Of the 56 Division I-A teams competing in bowl games this year, eleven had graduation rates below 50 percent. The University of Texas, whose football team went to the Rose Bowl and won the national collegiate championship, had a graduation rate of 31 percent according to DOE--40 percent according to the NCAA.
R. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University and vice chairman of the Knight Commission admits that, “Far too many schools are reaping financial rewards for post season play, while they’re failing to graduate the athletes who have enabled their success on the field.” What he’s really saying is that administrators tolerates the educational travesty because of the money successful basketball and football programs bring.
There is some hopeful news: Eight out of the 17 men’s sports had graduation scores of over 80 percent. Lacrosse led the way with 89 percent of its players graduating. But no one would confuse lacrosse with big time football or March Madness.
The two sports that generate the greatest revenue and alumni zeal, football and basketball, are in a class by themselves. Coaches earning seven figure salaries are naturally far more interested in the ability of a kid to hit a three point shot or run the “50” in 4.3 seconds than whether they can do calculus. In Tempe, Arizona during the recent Fiesta Bowl, I was amazed at how many Notre Dame and Ohio State alumni traveled long distances to see their teams play. At least 100,000 fans jammed into Sun Devil stadium. There were parties all over town; the restaurants and bars were filled to capacity. The money and alcohol flowed.
The kids on the field were filled with emotion. But when the curtain comes down on college athletics, how many of them will end up in the pros? How many will be prepared for the next chapter in their lives? How many will have the skills of even the most rudimentary college education?
Alumni fans might think a little about this, the next time they pump their fists for the home team.