Coach Them to be Champions in the Classroom, Too

By: Hugh B. Price

President

National Urban League

One could get a good debate going by asserting that no sport exemplifies the blend of skill, power, grace, quick thinking, determination and self-confidence required to be a top-flight athlete than basketball.

And that no brand of basketball is more exciting than that on display in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournaments-for men and women-that concluded Sunday and Monday.

The NCAA tournament's win-or-go-home format simultaneously puts a premium on both an entire team's unquestioning commitment to teamwork and yet also on the necessity in virtually every game of an individual deciding to rise above others to make the difference.

That produces a sense of excitement that pervades each tournament contest from beginning to end, and a sense of wonder, as anyone who's ever played basketball at any level knows, at what these young people are able to do with taking that round ball to the hoop.

It's too bad the enjoyment the collegiate game brings has to be-unnecessarily-undermined by a fact that can no longer be ignored in discussing higher education and its varsity athletes.

That issue is: why do so few of these varsity athletes, especially in football and basketball, not graduate on time-or at all?

I'm not talking about those truly superior athletes who leave college for the pro ranks before their senior year. I'm talking about the large majority who, it's clear by their sophomore year, aren't going to get to the pros at all.

The statistics about varsity-level athletes who don't graduate within the standard graduation-rate measuring stick of six years from entrance-especially at the major football and basketball colleges-is astonishing.

According to last year's study by the Knight Foundation Intercollegiate Athletic Commission, only about a third of the male basketball players at the top 100 or so NCAA colleges graduate on time, a rate that's fallen sharply in the last five years. The NCAA itself puts the rate at 40 percent, which it says is the second-lowest rate in nearly two decades.

The national graduation rate for all college students is 56 percent.

Last year only four of the 28 first-round selections in the National Basketball Association draft had completed four years of college.

This year, of the "Final Four" teams in the men's NCAA tourney, only the University of Kansas had a graduation rate for its varsity players above 50 percent: 64 percent of the Jayhawks graduate on time.

But: Indiana University had a graduation rate of 43 percent. The University of Maryland had a graduation rate of 19 percent. And the University of Oklahoma-it's hard to believe, but none of its scholarship basketball players from the years 1991 to 1994 have earned a bachelor's degree.

The problem is still largely confined to the male side of the gender line. The top four women's teams in the tournament have an average graduation rate of 66 percent; the top four men's teams: 32 percent. But many see similar problems ahead for women athletes as those games become more exciting-and lucrative to the television networks and the schools themselves.

Generally speaking, the major varsity football programs are just as bad, as such authors as Murray Sperber, and newspaper columnists as the Boston Globe's Derrick Z. Jackson, have been relentlessly documenting.

Jackson has been particularly sharp in tracking the even more disgraceful gap in graduation rates between white and black varsity athletes at these schools.

What all these numbers mean is that an alarming proportion of those guys we see effortlessly gliding up and down the basketball court, or fiercely pounding up and down the football field never make that proud walk at Commencement up the steps onto the stage to get a college diploma.

For the overwhelming majority of varsity-level athletes-those who will never have a shot at playing pro ball-that event would be the most important public appearance they could make. The cheers their achievements would provoke in that arena would have far more meaning than any no-look pass or slam dunk or riveting, broken-field run.

Yes: let's ask the varsity athletes what are they doing with their time, and what are they thinking-or not thinking-about their future.

And let's ask their parents what advice they're giving their children.

And then, let's ask the high school coaches and the teachers and guidance counselors and principals about their responsibility to equip these superb athletes with, at the least, respectable academic skills to get them ready, not just for college, but for life.

And, finally, let's ask the college and university coaches and deans and presidents to stop rationalizing their exploitation of these young people. Universities like Kansas, Boston College, the University of Notre Dame, Penn State, and Stanford have consistently shown it's possible to play in the big leagues and be true to the athletes whose athletic prowess brings millions of dollars in revenue.

This latter group of schools understands that their responsibility to the athletes whose exploits on the playing field bring them such acclaim includes coaching them to be champions in the classroom, too.

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