Considering the sordid underbelly and gross hypocrisy of major college sports—namely big-time football and men’s basketball—enjoying the action is a guilty pleasure for fans with any conscience.
So many (primarily black) young men … so many of them ignoring academic pursuit in favor of athletic exploits. All while administrators wink and nod, or simply look the other way.
That’s the perception and reality at the biggest and most successful college sports’ programs—programs that routinely populate the Top 25 rankings. And last month’s report from the National Collegiate Athletic Association doesn’t change a thing.
NCAA statistics show that 79 percent of all freshman student-athletes who entered school in 2002-03 graduated within six years. Federal statistics reveal a lower graduation rate, 64 percent, because they don’t include student-athletes who transfer and graduate from another school.
But that’s still higher than the 62 percent rate posted by the general student body.
“The misconception is that NCAA student-athletes are not good students,” interim NCAA President Jim Isch said in a conference call after the report was released. “The truth, as [the late NCAA President Myles Brand] reminded people, is that they could perform in the classroom, and they outperformed the general student body in almost every measure.”
Look, I’m ecstatic that so many student-athletes take their studies seriously, instead of wasting scholarships granted for athletic ability. And those who don’t value the opportunity for a free education—those who essentially welcome being exploited for their school’s financial gain—they have to bear a measure of personal responsibility for that misguided decision.
But it’s disingenuous to act like all student-athletes are created equal.
You don’t find volleyball, soccer or swimming teams competing for championships on national TV during prime time, with networks spending beaucoup dollars for broadcast rights. Yet ESPN bid $125 million per year to lure college football’s Bowl Championship Series from Fox (starting in January 2011). And CBS is in the midst of an 11-year, $6 billion deal to air the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
When you subtract the student-athletes in the so-called “non-revenue sports,”—meaning every other sport—the NCAA study’s results aren’t nearly as impressive. It’s no surprise that top-tier men’s basketball (64 percent) and football (67 percent) languish at the bottom of the NCAA graduation rates.
Don’t get me wrong: I would never suggest eliminating athletic scholarships. They provide a pathway to thousands of graduates every year, legitimate student-athletes who otherwise might not attend college, but earn degrees and move on to productive, non-sports careers.
In fact, the NCAA has a TV spot that boasts of its 380,000 student-athletes, “just about all of them will be going pro in something other than sports.”
That’s something we can’t emphasize enough to impressionable youth, especially African Americans, many of whom ignore the fact that less than 2 percent of college football and men’s basketball players reach the pros.
The problem is, about 98 percent of the little black boys playing football and basketball think they will reach the pros. It’s a debilitating illusion that starts as early as first grade, leading to academic indifference and incuriosity from elementary to middle to high school … and beyond.
But that doesn’t stop star performers from enrolling in college to continue playing, as long as they can meet bare-bones entrance requirements and remain eligible through dubious coursework.
Thus our guilty pleasure: the knowledge that many big-time players aren’t on campus for knowledge.
At best, many are clustered into certain majors, “earning” degrees in less-taxing areas of study that keep them eligible and limit interference with their sport.
A USA Today report last year revealed that at least 25 percent of juniors and seniors majored in the same subject at 118 of the NCAA’s 142 top-level schools. In one-third of the 235 “clusters,” at least 50 percent of the athletes on a team had the same major, raising questions of academic fraud, legitimacy and the motivation of academic advisers.
And don’t be fooled into thinking it’s another example of “The Man” holding brothers down: Four of the NCAA’s five-worst graduation rates in Division I occurred at historically black colleges—Florida A&M, (39 percent), Jackson State (40), Savannah State (43) and Southern (44).
There are always exceptions to the dumb-jock stereotype. Florida State’s star defensive back Myron Rolle, a Rhodes Scholar, bypassed the NFL this year to study at Oxford. Before Kevin Johnson became Sacramento’s first African-American mayor last year, he graduated from Cal-Berkeley with a degree in political science and was an NBA all-star point guard.
None of this is to suggest that every future all-star needs to go to college. On the contrary, if you’re good enough to secure a multi-million-dollar contract without a degree, go for it.
You can always go back to school (and have a lot more in the bank after tuition), whereas a career-ending injury in college leaves you broke.
If we’re honest, we’ll admit that college isn’t for everybody, regardless of athletic ability. There are plenty of bright, non-athletic high school grads who opt to make money instead of grades after the senior prom.
But the NBA and NFL make players ineligible until one and three years, respectively, after high school. The majority of future stars go to college and simply bide their time.
It’s sad that so many other players, those with no shot at the pros, simply waste their time.
Deron Snyder is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer based in Upper Marlboro, Md.