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Jewish World Review March 21, 2002 / 8 Nisan, 5762

Larry Atkins

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Shocks about drop-out jocks | They call the NCAA men's basketball tournament "March Madness," but many people are angry about what is going on with student-athletes in the classroom.

The statistics appear grim. The ESPN program Outside the Lines reported that 36 NCAA Division 1 schools graduated no African-American athletes from 1990-94, although they had six years to earn a degree. These schools included major programs such as Arkansas, Louisville, Cincinnati and Georgia Tech.

The most recent statistics show the graduation rate for Division 1 basketball players is 34 percent and the rate for football players is 48 percent. Last year, the Knight Commission, a panel of university presidents, conference commissioners and athletic officials, recommended that if a school failed to graduate 50 percent of its athletes, it should be banned from postseason play.

However, NCAA statistics make no distinction between players who drop out for academic reasons, leave school to play in the NBA, or transfer to another school and receive a degree; they all count as non-graduates. Also, the statistics can fluctuate. Since 1995-96, 81 percent of Georgia Tech men's basketball players have graduated or played in the NBA, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

These apparently grim statistics also don't reflect the fact that graduation rates for college students nationwide are surprisingly low. ESPN said that 40 million Americans have left college without a degree. The national average for the six-year graduation rate for all students is 55.6 percent. Less than half of public university students finish school within six years.

In 1999, 31 percent of Arkansas college students graduated in five years, well below the national rate of 42 percent for that year.

No public university in Pennsylvania, including Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh, graduated more than 40 percent of freshmen they admitted in 1997.

According to the most recent NCAA statistics, 35 percent of African-American male basketball players who entered college in 1994 earned degrees, compared to 31 percent of all African-American male students.

Graduation rates can be misleading. Although Temple University's men's basketball team had only a 20 percent graduation rate in 2001, head coach John Chaney has rightfully been acknowledged as a role model and disciplinarian who has had many success stories in taking at-risk academic kids from impoverished backgrounds and giving them a chance.

Most student-athletes probably won't become doctors, lawyers or biochemists. But many go into respectable careers such as high school gym teachers, coaches or social workers.

Many people complain that athletes are taking up space that should belong to others who got rejected by the school. Yet people don't complain when children of rich alumni or donors get into a college despite their lack of academic credentials.

Are students, alumni and boosters content with high graduation rates when their team founders in mediocrity? Of course not. Just ask former Notre Dame head football coach Bob Davies, who was fired even though his team had a high graduation rate; he didn't win a national championship or go to enough major bowl games.

It's hard to take seriously the recent statement of Notre Dame's president emeritus and Knight Commission co-chairman, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who said, "We're not in the entertainment business, nor are we a minor league for professional sports."

Things would improve if the NBA set up an extensive, viable minor league system, similar to minor league baseball. The NBA recently established an eight-team developmental league, but it has a minimum age limit of 20 years old (or age 18, if a player was drafted and cut by an NBA team). If the NBA were to drop the minimum age limit and expand the number of teams, the developmental league could be similar to minor league baseball.

Instead of opting for college, high school student-athletes who are not interested in getting a college degree could go straight to a minor league team and earn a salary.

Student-athletes would benefit academically if the NCAA shortened the length of the seasons and practice time. Practice for Division 1 basketball starts on Oct. 15, and the championship game is played in early April.

That leaves two to three months of the school year in which basketball players don't have practice or games. The length of the season and the substantial amount of time spent traveling for games and practices make it harder for athletes to find time for study.

While colleges should try to improve the graduation rates for athletes -- and all students -- we shouldn't overhaul the current system because of a few bad apple schools and coaches. When you compare the graduation rates of NCAA Division 1 athletes and the rest of the student bodies nationwide, there isn't a major difference.

There's room for improvement, but that goes for everyone, not just the student-athletes.

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JWR contributor Larry Atkins is a lawyer and writer who lives in Philadelphia. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Larry Atkins