- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

The usual suspects are wringing their hands again over the deplorable graduation rates of a majority of the 65 teams in the NCAA tournament.

This has come to be one of the rites of March, when the teary-eyed observers of the game express their heartfelt anguish around the latest graduation findings of the NCAA.

There is a dog-bites-man element to the news, the substance of it so old by now it has sprouted gray whiskers.

The graduation numbers may deviate by percentage points each year, but the unsettling essence remains firm.

All too many academic risks are granted the opportunity to attend college because of their athletic ability, and all too many fail to embrace the challenge.

This is exploitive? This is sad, unfair?

This is nonsense.

If a coach recruits 10 high-jumping vegetable plants into his basketball program over a three-year period, his graduation rate is liable to be unimpressive. This is an elementary notion, not hard to grasp unless you live in the make-believe world of perfection.

To be honest, a high-jumping vegetable plant has more academic help at his disposal than an ordinary college student.

The high-jumping vegetable plant is provided with tutors, academic advisers, ghostwriters and study hall partners. Anything that possibly can be done to facilitate the learning process of a high-jumping vegetable plant is implemented by coaching staffs, if only to protect their interests.

At some point, however, the personal responsibility of the high-jumping vegetable plant becomes an undeniable element of the learning process. If the high-jumping vegetable plant is not interested in learning — and he would not be a vegetable plant if he truly were interested in learning — then no academic support system is destined to push him beyond his vegetative state.

There are exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions, and the Father Flanagan types of college basketball cling to these exceptions, as if they were security blankets. They point to this or that “kid” who was an academic risk a long time ago, only now he owns a couple of Third World countries, and it is all because Father Flanagan took a chance and gave him a scholarship.

This is very nice, very sweet, just incidental to the overall numbers emanating from the NCAA.

Consider this: Just 21 of the 65 teams in the tournament have a graduation rate of at least 50 percent in a six-year period.

This is no accident. The fingerprints of the college presidents and coaches are all over these incriminating figures, as they have been for years.

No one points a gun to their heads and says, “Let the high-jumping vegetable plant into your school.”

The NCAA and schools have so lowered their entrance requirements for athletes over the years that anyone who is able to breathe without assistance is granted admission. How do school presidents and coaches rationalize this hypocritical premise?

Follow along: They drop the charge of the SAT being culturally biased. They talk about the deficiencies of the public school system in many large cities. They talk about how it is important — no, essential — to throw a lifeline to those who have been let down by society, which is often code for a single-parent home stuffed with the children of various men. Yes, all of it is somehow society’s fault, your fault.

The school presidents and coaches do not talk about the immigrant from the Middle East who drives a taxi or the good old boy who comes into your home to fix the plumbing or the Spanish-speaking guy who labors on a construction site. They do not talk about all the ways to make it in America, many of which have little to do with a college diploma.

Instead, they become weepy around a high-jumping vegetable plant and then pretend to be disturbed by the recycled news of embarrassing graduation rates.

We are in the midst of this amusing drill again, as we will be again next spring.

You cannot raise entrance requirements, because that is so wrong.

Yet, as the NCAA reports, if you have 10 high-jumping vegetable plants in your program, you might be fortunate to turn two or three of them into genuine student-athletes.

If those percentages are worthwhile, then fine. Just spare us the drama.

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