- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

Now that colleges are required to report how many of their student athletes actually graduate, the numbers reveal the term “student athlete” to be almost as oxymoronic in actual practice as “jumbo shrimp,” “civil war,” or “sanitary landfill.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Web site reveals how pathetically few campus jocks make it to the academic finish line commonly known as “a diploma.”

The NCAA is delighted to report, for example, that Division I college athletes are graduating at a record rate. They are even more likely to graduate than nonathletes.

But, thank heaven for athletic girls. Leave out women athletes and the graduation numbers look downright bleak, especially for football and basketball, the biggest money magnets.

Although the NCAA has tracked graduation rates since 1984, this year offers the first study compiled since academic requirements were tightened in the mid-1990s.

Many critics feared catastrophe, athletically and academically. Instead, the latest study of Division I college athletes who entered college on scholarship in 1996 found they graduated within six years at an overall record rate of 62 percent, 3 points higher than the graduation rate of nonathletes during that period.

But, unfortunately, male athletes alone graduated at a rate of only 55 percent, a 1 percent increase over last year, while female athletes graduated at a rate of 70 percent, also a 1 percent increase.

Ah, yes, the amateur ideal still thrives in the women’s sports world, as it does for the Army and Navy football teams, mostly because they don’t have the lure of possible big-bucks stardom in the NBA or NFL that tempts the guys.

The only declines in this year’s graduation rates were by 1 percentage point among white male basketball players (to 52 percent) and white football players (61 percent).

Men’s basketball, traditionally the lowest category, showed the greatest progress: a 6-point increase to 42 percent and, among black players, a 10-point surge to 38 percent.

Those numbers are not quite as dismal as they look. Colleges point out that these figures are depressed partly by significant numbers of players who either transferred to other colleges and graduated there or were recruited by the pro’s before they graduated. Either way, their departures have been counted against the school that they leave. Proposed NCAA rules changes should eliminate that discrepancy.

Even so, it is encouraging to note that only 24 percent of black male basketball players were graduating a mere two years ago. Their 14-point graduation-rate gain in two years shows things are moving in the right direction, if you happen to believe, as I do, in the quaint, old-fashioned notion that college sports should be part of the educational process and not just a business enterprise.

The NCAA has wrestled with that debate since its founding almost a century ago. College sports increasingly provide big revenue magnets for the schools and free farm teams for the NFL and NBA. Athletes who might actually have an inclination to study and avoid taking bribes from alumni boosters must work uphill against big demands on their time, their wallets and their consciences.

That’s why I believe that, if schools fail to educate their student athletes, they should pay their players as they would pay any other worker who helps bring revenue. Legislators in Nebraska and Texas have gone so far as to propose bills to that effect in recent years, but the prospect still looks remote.

In the meantime, college sports should go the other way: scale back the commercialism, reduce training time and make it easier for athletes to go to class and find study time.

In April, the NCAA’s Division I governing board of school presidents is expected to pass new rules to punish teams whose athletes consistently fail to make progress toward graduation. They could lose scholarships and even the right to play in the post season.

Predictable howls, moans and gnashing of teeth have greeted this prospect. Some critics say it will only encourage cheating, as if the current system were ethically pure and pristine.

Similar complaints greeted reforms in the mid-1990s, when the NCAA raised freshman eligibility requirements. Black coaches, in particular, complained the new standards relied too much on standardized tests that discriminated against blacks and Latinos.

I understood their point, although their response disappointed me. To me, there is no discrimination more unfair than the belief young athletes, who overcome extraordinary challenges on the playing fields, can’t handle the academic challenges their fellow students face in classroom.

The standards were loosened under legal pressures, but fortunately, not abandoned. The result, happily, is a new understanding even among the future Michael Jordans in today’s middle-school sports programs that hard study and decent grades do pay off in life, even for student athletes.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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