Saturday, December 27, 2008

NCAA's dilemma

Pretty much everything coming out these days related to NCAA academics will tell you that based on record graduation rates, the establishment of APR requirements and the never-before-seen expenditures on academic centers and tutoring, today's student-athletes are better off than ever.

But are they?

I've long wondered how people come to the conclusion that because more athletes are graduating, more athletes must be getting a quality education. Isn't it possible that athletes are simply getting an unreasonable amount of "aid' or flexibility on the school's part, allowing them to gain degrees while actually getting less of an education?

I'm not saying this is the case everywhere, of course. It might not be the case anywhere. But it certainly seems worth considering.

The Associated Press put together an outstanding piece last week on this very subject, with many school representatives decrying the current state of academics because of the ridiculous lengths to which schools will go to get athletes "help" -- and by help, we're talking about pretty much whatever it takes to keep an athlete eligible.

The following quote comes from Kenneth Holum, a veteran University of Maryland history professor and chair of the faculty senate, in regard to the standard manner of assisting student-athletes:
“They’re steered to the courses that they know they can pass,” Holum said. “If the effort is to keep them eligible, they’re being shortchanged.”
That's really the crux of the issue here: Are students actually getting a better education, or are schools just doing a better job of figuring out how to keep athletes eligible?

It's common knowledge that at a large majority of schools, being a football player and attempting to major in certain subjects is a nearly impossible combination. But when the school obviously pushes these student-athletes into certain groups of classes -- commonly called "clustering" -- there's an obvious conflict of interest.

In some cases -- such as the recent academic scandal at Florida State -- it goes beyond a conflict of interest and into the realm of full-blown fraud. Jason Lanter, a former academic adviser at Maryland who worked with student-athletes, remembers similar problems:
He recalls student-athletes coming to him with course cards written in someone else’s handwriting.

“It’s pretty easy to read between the lines that the athletic counselors are just putting standard courses down,” said Lanter, now a professor at Kutztown University and the president-elect of The Drake Group. “I’m not saying everybody did this, but it was enough for it to be an issue for concern for me. It’s just frustrating when I don’t think the athletes are receiving the education they were promised as part of their scholarship.”
I disagree a bit with the last portion of that quote -- you can get as much or as little out of your college education as you want, in my opinion -- but if the school is simply standing aside as those who don't care about their education "earn" a tainted degree, that's where things are breaking down.

What I'm trying to say here is that there should be suspicion, not blind praise, when a school graduates an unusually high percentage of its players. And yes, that's a sad statement about society, but it is what it is. College isn't easy. Going to college and playing sports at a Division I level is even harder. Attrition should be a natural part of the process.

I fully support getting students the help they deserve, but why are millions and millions of dollars being spent annually on athlete-only academic centers? We all know the answer, but no one's willing to speak up.

These schools have too much riding on the academic success of their athletes, and they'll do whatever it takes to get to those magic APR numbers and ensure that the steady stream of NCAA money continues to flow in their direction.

The entire issue was summarized perfectly by David Ridpath, a former compliance director at Marshall who now heads The Drake Group, a watchdog that has proposed doing away with stand-alone support centers and moving athletes into the normal academic advising system.
“The big problem with these academic centers for me is very clear -- and only because I lived it and I can say this from experience,” he said. “The goal is to keep the kids eligible, and there’s a big difference between keeping kids eligible and helping them get a viable college education.”

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