- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2001

The first lie in major college athletics is that a diploma is essential to achieving the good life in America.

They always agree on the first lie, the coaches, administators, university presidents and those from the Knight Commission, and so, all attempts at reforming that which is broken are doomed.

If you are trying to fix something, be it the college athletic system or the pinging noise in your vehicle, you must start from an accurate base. In the event of a pinging noise, you first must open the hood to your engine and not check the air pressure in your tires.

Unfortunately, all the do-gooders in major college athletics start with an implied falsehood, which is: Education is necessary to a high quality of life, although from anecdotal experience, most people know this to be otherwise.

It is this lie, and the ones that follow it, that prompt the admission of a high number of so-called at-risk student-athletes. Invariably, a certain percentage of these student-athletes wind up embarrassing the university and placing coaches in incredibly compromised positions. A tutor sometimes is another name for the person doing the student-athlete’s work.

This is not to fault the big-time coaches. Many may be frauds, but they are frauds out of necessity. They have to win, and their make-believe roles as educators only come into question if there is some unfortunate circumstance making the front pages of the newspapers.

The coaches are only products of the system anyway, their intellect only so deep. They live in black and white, wins and losses, while the world around them is gray.

They are X-and-O geniuses, parental figures, moral philosophers, social workers and Renaissance-like souls. They are so smart, so all-knowing, so all-controlling, so full of themselves, thanks to the system and the media, despite a serious conflict of interest.

What’s in their best interest is not necessarily in the best interest of the athlete and university. Worse, unlike in the real world, coaches function as autocrats, free of the usual checks and balances. If a professor behaved in the fashion of a coach, and not just on game night, the professor would be out on the street.

Education is not unimportant, of course, and in a number of professions, it is paramount.

But that is not really what the do-gooders mean when they discuss the importance of a college education in relation to the athletically gifted. They speak of education’s intrinsic value, which is their argument of last resort if an athlete is on campus for only a year or two and not all that motivated in the classroom. They say, well, the kid still learned something, still profited from his stay, which is true.

It is equally true that humans are the sum of their experiences, whatever those may be, and that, hopefully, humans learn and form ideas from all their experiences, whether they are on a college campus or trying to make it in the real world.

If anything, college athletes, by the nature of their pursuit, are insulated from all kinds of valuable learning experiences. They don’t work while they are at play for a school. They don’t know what it’s like to be the average undergraduate, and all that entails. They don’t have to think critically for themselves, because a coach maps out the days and weeks for his players.

A college athlete attends weightlifting sessions, individual workouts, practices, meetings, study hall, team meals, community endeavors, games and, not to forget, class.

That doesn’t leave an athlete much time to analyze his surroundings, hardly no time at all, in fact, which, to be honest, is how coaches like it. The more a coach is able to fill in the time gaps for his players, the less he has to worry about whether something embarrassing appears in the newspaper.

For the average college student, there is a class schedule and then there is the rest of the day, to be managed however the student decides. No, the student doesn’t always make good decisions. The student messes up, perhaps parties too much, whatever. These students also mature, too, benefiting from their semi-independence. Some wash out. That’s the way it goes. Some wash out and eventually return to school. That’s the way it goes, too, which is the beauty of America.

You have every right to be an idiot, and to remain one as long as necessary. Whenever you wake up, if you wake up, America is there for you, ready to be embraced.

You don’t like school? Fine. No problem. Find what it is you do like. Build a nest egg. Open a business. Learn a trade. This is the classic immigrant tale. Immigrants often don’t know the language. They don’t know the culture.

Here’s what they do know: They know they have two arms, two legs and a willingness to show up each day. They know whatever amount of money they earn each month, they best keep their expenditures below that figure and diligently save the rest.

The Knight report laments the modest graduation rates of student-athletes at the Division I level and suggests implementing penalties to those programs that fail to meet an acceptable graduation level.

What might that mean other than harder-working tutors and slicker ways of crunching the numbers?

The system bleeds for its sweaty labor force, and nearly everyone in the system has a sure-fire solution. What’s funny is the principals can’t agree on what those solutions should be, because they have competing interests, and no one really wants to rock the financial boat.

What’s even funnier is each solution stems from the basic lie.

If you happen to be athletically gifted, you desperately need to attend college. College then becomes everything, this almost mystical door to a life of knowledge, self-fulfillment and material gain.

You just can’t allow a 7-footer to grow up to be a plumber or an auto mechanic. Are you kidding? That is so sad, such a waste. That thinking also is elitist, unfair to those who earn a nice living in those fields.

Here’s another thing: If an institution is forever dumbing down its standards, making gross exceptions here and there for whatever reasons, at what point do the masses pay a larger price? At what point is the diploma cheapened, devalued, reflective of not much achievement at all?

Many colleges often ask America’s secondary educators that very question after they find themselves in the remedial business, teaching stuff that should have been mastered in high school.

The latest hue following the Knight report is typical, if not self-serving, and meaningless.

For people who are supposed to be smart, they sure are dumb.

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