Jewish World Review April 8, 2003 / 6 Nisan, 5763

Terry Eastland

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Consumer Reports


University officials must put academics ahead of athletics


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | If you follow men's college basketball, you know that Georgia isn't playing tonight in New Orleans for the national championship. But it could be - had it not disgraced itself.

Georgia finished the regular season with 19 wins and 8 losses, having won 11 of 16 games in the Southeastern Conference. Having defeated four Top 25 teams, Georgia was ranked 21st in the Associated Press poll. Not even an opening round defeat in the SEC tournament was going to stop it from getting an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

But as the regular season ended, in an interview on ESPN, former Georgia player Tony Cole accused Jim Harrick Jr., the assistant coach and son of head coach Jim Harrick, of academic fraud. Mr. Cole said he received an "A" for a course taught by the younger Harrick, though he never attended a single class. The course was "Basketball Strategy."

The university did an investigation. Whereupon, having confirmed Mr. Cole's charge, it fired Jim Harrick Jr. It also declared ineligible two starters who also had received an "A" in "Basketball Strategy" (the only grade given to those "taking" the "course"). It then suspended Jim Harrick with pay, pending an investigation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. And it declared the season over.

In case you are new to the story, Georgia isn't the only university whose men's basketball program has majored in academic fraud. Consider Fresno State's, where the former team statistician wrote papers for players. And then there is St. Bonaventure, where the president (yes, the president, since resigned) approved the transfer of an academically ineligible player (so deemed by the admissions office because he had received a certificate in welding from his junior college).

Those who closely follow college sports debate where the academic fraud is worse - in football or men's basketball. But there can be little doubt that, whether or not programs cross important lines, many have a tenuous, if not an attenuating, relationship to academics. That is the deeper problem, and it is easy to see why it is a problem. Schools want the big TV revenue; coaches, the big salaries and ancillary income; players, even before they matriculate, the professional (and big-moneyed) careers. Academics lose priority, and a "college sport," like a "student athlete," becomes an oxymoron.

Assuming universities still wish to portray themselves as places of "higher education," reform must start with them. Fortunately, the president of the NCAA, Myles Brand, is himself a former university president who has declared his interest in making sure that college athletes are indeed students. Likewise pressing for the same goal are the heads of several universities, including Gordon Gee, the chancellor at Vanderbilt, who once presided over Ohio State, which has the biggest athletics program in the country.

Mr. Gee recommends three reforms, all compelling. One is to tie the number of scholarships a school offers to graduation rates. The rule would be: for every student on, say, a basketball scholarship who doesn't graduate (within six years), the school has one less basketball scholarship to give. (Division I men's programs currently can give 13 scholarships.) Mr. Gee also would tie graduation rates to the distribution each school in a conference receives from TV revenue. Thus, instead of an equal distribution, schools failing to graduate a high number of their athletes would receive a lesser payout.

Those two changes would motivate universities to recruit students (a) they were confident could do the academic work necessary to graduate and (b) they believed weren't eager to leave school early for the pros. To make sure universities didn't water down the academics, Mr. Gee also recommends a required core curriculum for those on athletic scholarships. "They should be legitimate courses," he told me, "in English, math, languages and so on."

Mr. Gee says he "goes back and forth" on whether to make freshmen ineligible. That would be a blunt rule, foreclosing first-year action to a potential Rhodes scholar, a Bill Bradley, say. But it might improve the graduation rate, since freshmen could focus more on academics.

I would favor such a rule - and whatever else might return academics to the daily fare of the college athlete. It is time for higher education to get its priorities right. As Mr. Gee says, "First we have the university and then we play football or basketball. We don't play them first and then attach them to the university."

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JWR contributor Terry Eastland is is publisher of The Weekly Standard.Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Terry Eastland