Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined on NCAA basketball teams’ graduation rates and the achievement gap between black and white players last week, and I must confess myself (and this isn’t the first time with Secretary Duncan) disappointed.
At least he has the balls to take on a major issue, though he has done so in entirely incorrect terms: Duncan’s solution to solving the problem of low-graduation-rate teams and big achievement-gap teams is to punish the institutions who have the sagging numbers by simply banning them from post-season play. He also says:
“But I fail to see why a small number of programs that seem largely indifferent to the academic success of their student-athletes continue to be rewarded with opportunities for postseason glory. I played with inner-city players who had been used and dumped by their universities. When the ball stopped bouncing, they struggled to find work, had difficult lives, and some died early. The dividing line for success was between those who went to college and got their degrees and those who did not.”
Currently, nearly half of all freshman (not just athletes, but all freshmen) who show up on campus this coming fall will not graduate from the institution at which they originally matriculated. Duncan wants college basketball teams to essentially match that number with a 40% graduation rate. On the surface, this all sounds fine and dandy, even proactive of the NCAA and the secretary.
And yet, as with several other policies not related in any way to this post, Duncan has missed the point. Colleges can do their part, but no initiative or program or nostalgia for the days of Bob Knight can change the fact that college is a choice, not a requirement. Unlike K-12 education, there is no law that says anyone must attend college or get a degree.
Indeed, the “dividing line” Duncan mentions above is the same dividing line that exists for the entire country. To punish college teams for being microcosms of major social issues is just silly.
I mean, I get it. Many teams out there don’t give a crap about how their players are doing in school. They even go so far as to recruit academically questionable players so as to not suck and make money.
But why punish the institutions for what individuals screwed up? Investigate and punish the institutions that really don’t care who graduates and who doesn’t if that’s a priority now. When Armon Bassett (now with Ohio, his third school) and most of the team at Indiana were either kicked out of the program or left of their own volition amidst drug use accusations and an incredibly low team GPA, it was widely stated that they all stopped caring because Assholeface Kelvin Sampson got fired, not because Indiana University doesn’t give a shit about graduating its players.
And thanks for singling IU out, by the way, Arne. Using Bob Knight as an example? The dude was an ungracious, petty tyrant in his time at Indiana, but he won and graduated a lot of his players, so hey, he’s a great example!
College students are, by and large, getting a degree so they can be a professional in some vocation or other. It just so happens that the three sports with the worst graduation rates are basketball, football, and baseball: the three major, American professional sports. Two of which have few other reliable routes to them other than through the NCAA.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that many players in these sports don’t care at all about a college degree and would rather concentrate on going professional in their respective sports. Notice how basketball and football are two sports without an established alternative to college athletics as well. Any prospective player has to go through the NCAA to make it to the NFL or NBA unless they are good enough to play basketball in Europe or…well football players are kind of screwed. I have no idea what baseball’s excuse is.
It would be easy to say that we should just find a way for kids who don’t want to go to college to go into some sort of minor leagues for the NBA and NFL, but the NCAA would never let that happen. They don’t exist because the NCAA is out to protect itself while still pretending they care about academics. They, and the universities that are a part of the NCAA, only want to make money. Everything else is secondary. They would never allow a minor leagues for the NBA or NFL to exist because it would devalue their own product and cause them to lose money. This is exactly why the current graduation rate formula is so program-friendly, and why Secretary Duncan could only use graduation data from 1999-2002 for his ESPN piece.
Let’s close the achievement gap between whites and the other races. Let’s get more people into college and do all the great shit that can make this country great again. But let’s not pretend that a 40% or 50% graduation rate among NCAA basketball players is anything but a deck chair off the Titanic.
Nearly every state in the country is cutting education budgets, including Indiana, the home of the NCAA. Secretary Duncan’s solution to that was to create competition between the states for a finite amount of money, better known as Race to the Top. This, when every state is in need, when every student is in need. If the secretary is so interested in competition, why not make the playing field equal instead of pretending that it already is? Why force the states to compete for the scraps from the federal government’s table like sycophantic lords in the court of a king? Would it be so wrong, since they are faced with few options, for universities to create sporting majors for their scholarship athletes? That’s what they’re there for, after all.
On a side note, I also realize that all athletes, especially those at the major universities, have incredibly great tutoring programs. It is, despite how it seems in college, incredibly hard for a scholarship athlete to be academically ineligible. Any athlete who is has accomplished a truly monumental academic failure, and one wonders if they’re mentally able to play their sport in the first place.
Also, if the federal government is suddenly serious about academics, why not ask the NCAA to raise the minimum GPA and test scores to make an athlete eligible for competition? Notre Dame is an incredibly difficult university to get into, but not if you’re fantastic at football, and don’t let them pretend otherwise. Eliminating those athletes who are less serious about academics would force their high schools to get them to do better AND eliminate many athletes who have no intention of getting a degree.
Would this work? Of course not. The NCAA cares way too much about their products on the fields and courts, and it wouldn’t be fair to any great athlete who attends an underfunded, underachieving school.
Many African-American players come from unbelievably poor and underserved areas, and to write those circumstances off is intellectually lazy at best. Using a small, Catholic college’s example of academic success, as the secretary does with Xavier, is misleading at best. And boiling down major social ills into a small, pointless solution applied to an incredibly tiny percentage of the population is pathetic and pedantic. Let’s attack those problems from the bottom up, not from the top down.