On the first Wednesday of February, big time college football coaches in America sign the latest batch of phenoms to restock the shelves and renew their fans’ dreams of future championships. The sporting public is fascinated by this annual ritual of unofficial verbal commitments, recommitments, de-commitments and signings of the National Letter of Intent by 17-year-old late adolescents who represent new hope for college teams.
Recruiting sites rank the potential harvest of each university and the recruiting acumen of each head coach. Special television shows are created for the speculation of who is going where. All of this hoopla and speculation often occur before any serious considerations are made regarding the players’ academic preparation and institutional fit on campus and in the classroom. It has become common for high school juniors to verbally commit to coaches before they ever step foot on campuses.
Inside football offices, recruiting coordinators and coaches gather to conceive ever-more-elaborate enticements to impress and convince prize recruits that their athletic programs’ value their talents more than the school down the road. The futures of head coaches ride on the talents of the athletes. This year’s prize for successful antics goes to Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel, who arrived at the high school of the nation’s top recruit, Dorial Green-Beckham, in a helicopter. One wonders which school Green-Beckham would have chosen if Coach Pinkel had arrived in his car.
Making Peace With the NCAA
A longtime critic of the association praises the recent decision
to let big-time sports programs
offer multi-year scholarships.
College programs, with the support of their athletic departments and administrations, will cast aside propriety and logic to woo high school stars with perceived talent. With the help of boosters, coaches too often resort to unethical behavior to persuade athletes to sign National Letters of Intent (NLI). The recruiting frenzy infects boosters who are intent on helping head coaches bag their game.
The most recent allegations from a former University of Miami booster and convicted felon Nevin Shapiro may implicate as many as 114 players for illegal inducements and extra benefits including parties for players, bounties for injuring opponents, and arranging prostitutes for recruits and abortions for the girlfriends of players. One of Shapiro’s alleged targets in 2004 was Willie Williams, a talented linebacker with a history of legal problems. After considerable angst, University of Miami President Donna Shalala permitted Willie Williams to enroll at Miami in spite of 11 juvenile arrests. The competition to sign the most athletically talented athletes is so fierce and intense that the criminal history of the players seems to be of little consequence to many college coaches and their administrations. Under pressure from celebrity coaches and major donors, directors of admissions and college presidents often capitulate.
Another recent example of the zeal for athletic talent is the case of Chris Collins; a talented high school linebacker who was arrested for aggravated sexual assault of a 12-year-old after his high school prom. After the withdrawal of a scholarship offer from the University of Texas at Austin, Mr. Collins simply committed his talents to Oklahoma State University, where he played for the Cowboys for two years until he pleaded guilty to the charges and was convicted as a sex offender. Coaches use the rationale that athletes can be rehabilitated and deserve a second chance. While it is doubtful that second chances would be afforded to non-scholarship players, it makes one wonder what sort of crime a talented recruit would need to commit to become disqualified for a second chance. The need to win football games trumps criminal history and reason.
In 2009, at the request of the University of Tennessee football offices, two football hostesses traveled to the high school games of recruits to entice them to join the volunteers. In 2004, the University of Colorado attempted to lure recruits to campus through well-coordinated parties involving call girls and allegations of rape, launching several ineffectual changes in NCAA recruiting practices and legislation.
As unscrupulous as these recruitment activities may be in college football, it is sadly well-documented that the identification of prospects in men’s basketball starts earlier and that prospects are more likely to be represented by handlers who restrict access to their players to the highest bidders.
Recruiting has become high-pressure coercion of young adults by celebrity coaches. We offer some suggestions to ensure academic primacy and fairness in the recruiting process.
Ban verbal commitments until the prospective athlete has been deemed admissible to the four-year institution. When a coach offers a recruit a scholarship, he acts as an agent for the university. A celebrity coach's offer of a scholarship to a recruit is a powerful implied offer of both admissions and financial aid. It places enormous pressure on the director of admissions and the president of the university to admit the committed recruit irrespective of his academic qualification or institutional fit. To deny admission would certainly create media headlines and angry fans and donors.
Instead, require the institutions’ examination of academic records and a tentative approval of admissions before offers of athletic-related aid are extended to recruits. Scholarships should not be offered unless there is some assurance that the recruit will be admitted to the college of his choice and that he has a reasonable chance of graduating. Without a serious review of the recruit’s academic qualifications, his verbal commitment will often rule out the recruit’s options to attend other colleges.
With the NCAA’s passage of the ability for institutions to offer multiyear financial aid grants, athletes will once again be afforded a measure of security to pursue a meaningful education without fear of losing their scholarships. As such, it will become crucial for coaches and institutional admissions officers to make accurate decisions about the long-term academic and athletic viability of recruits. Poor assessments will result in costly and expensive mistakes to sport teams.
Abandon the National Letter of Intent and Releases for Transferring. The NLI document clearly disadvantages the athlete. By signing the contract, the recruit ends the formal recruiting process. The document presumes that the student-athlete has committed to the institution, and it attaches eligibility penalties for attending a different school or transferring prior to the completion of an academic year. Should the coach who recruited him leave for a more lucrative job such as Greg Schiano’s departure from Rutgers for the NFL, the student remains bound to the institution under penalty of loss of athletic eligibility. In spite of signing long-term contracts, coaches often abandon their obligations to take offers of million-dollar raises at other institutions. Universities do not penalize their National Merit Scholars for transferring or changing their minds about enrolling, nor should they penalize their athletes. Signing a financial aid agreement is adequate protection for the student to receive a scholarship, while offering him the freedom to transfer without a penalty of loss of eligibility. While the National Letter of Intent may be good for photo opportunities, the current contract unfairly favors the interests of the coach and university.
Maryland coach Randy Edsall refused to release three players to schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and non-conference schools that Maryland was scheduled to play in the upcoming two seasons. Coach Edsall felt free to leave Connecticut to accept the job at Maryland without any restriction whatever. Athletes should be afforded the same freedom to transfer to explore other schools and programs as their coaches and the student body.
Redesign official visits to follow those offered to the general student body. Abandon the orchestrated entertainment offered by hosts and volunteer recruiters. Official visits for prospective athletes should be designed to be learning opportunities about the institution and the athletic program rather than the circus and party atmosphere they have become. Recruits should stay in campus residential facilities rather than five-star hotel suites. Their visits should be the same process offered to prospective students by the campus and simulate common campus life.
Limit official visits to three institutions. Prospective athletes may take as many as five official visits paid by the institutions. Today, official visits often are formalities for verbally committed prospects to be entertained at the cost of the institutions. By the official visit season of the athlete’s senior year, most have visited campus on unofficial visits, attended the coach’s athletic camps, attended multiple games, and narrowed down their choices. We believe that de-emphasizing and reducing the number of official campus visits would represent a cost savings to institutions and possibly reduce the party atmosphere.
Require police background checks of recruits and all athletic personnel. Information which could legally be gathered on the past criminal activities of recruits should be sought and reported to the president of the university before offers of admissions or financial aid are executed. Police background checks should periodically be conducted for coaching staffs and all full-time athletic staff. The instant celebrity attached to big time college sport coaches and athletes may influence inappropriate off-the-field behavior that endangers the reputation and integrity of the university. Athletic programs that have been embarrassed by recruits and athletic staff are slowly adopting this practice, but we recommend that it become established national policy.
We should expect athletic staff to represent our universities to recruits with accurate depictions of campus and athletic life without taking advantage of youth who are too often from disadvantaged backgrounds. For when the press conferences and celebrations fade, star recruits encounter the stark regimen of athletic program routine and are often disillusioned by the unfulfilled promises of their coaches.
The reality does not mirror the hype they heard from their coaches. When recruiting has ended, athletic programs will often attempt to reduce the expectations of highly recruited athletes, but the athletes are often left feeling betrayed. Campus, classes and sport do not quite measure up with what was described. The academic major they had hoped to pursue interferes with athletic commitments and academic majors are changed to accommodate athletics. Their hopes of playing time often do not materialize immediately as they were told, and recovering from injury in rehabilitation becomes their new reality. Institutions should eliminate the party atmosphere for prospective athletes, and ensure that campus visits represent the reality of campus life without gimmicks.
Gerald S. Gurney is assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma and immediate past president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics. Jerome C. Weber is Regents Professor of Education and Human Relations at Oklahoma.
For decades I have used events like March Madness, the NCAA’s season-ending basketball tournament, to bash the NCAA for transforming big-time college athletes into underpaid employees in a multibillion-dollar industry. Even worse, in my opinion, was the myth that these athletes were merely engaging in an extracurricular activity during their free time, like members of the drama club.
Much to my surprise the NCAA, under the leadership of President Mark Emmert, has recently enacted financial aid reforms that may have brought my years of NCAA-bashing to an end. Critics have argued that the changes amount to little more than "window dressing," but a strong case can be made that the revival of multi-year scholarships represents one of the most significant educational reforms in recent NCAA history.
In 1956, the NCAA decided to openly subsidize college athletes by offering scholarships covering room, board, tuition and fees. But it was not until the introduction of one-year renewable scholarships in 1973 that coaches could cancel aid for just about any reason, including injury or poor athletic performance. At this point scholarships became binding contracts.
Over the next four decades, one-year renewable scholarships have provided the burgeoning college sports industry with a reliable and disciplined source of cheap labor. Athletes who do not meet a coach’s performance expectations are often encouraged to transfer or simply stripped of financial aid. Coaches’ jobs often depend on getting rid of “dead wood.”
It is difficult to overstate the kinds of demands coaches can make on players as a condition for the yearly renewal of financial aid. Coaches ask that athletes play with injury, and control their lives on and off the field. Because each season is a tryout for financial aid the next, sports takes priority. An NCAA survey carried out a few years ago found that big-time college football players spend an average of 44.8 hours a week on their sport in addition to time in the classroom.
A number of reform organizations, including the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, have recommended a return to multiyear scholarships over the years, but to no avail. The NCAA ignored such suggestions in deference to coaches who feared losing control over their players. Media pundits generally labeled proposals to return to multiyear scholarships as quixotic. Only two years ago, two ESPN basketball analysts, Andy Katz and Fran Fraschilla, assured me on "Outside the Lines" that the idea had no traction.
Rationalize Sports Recruiting
Recent scandals and embarrassing
escapades show that big changes
are needed in how big-time
programs recruit players, two professors argue.
All of the skeptics have been proved wrong; the media silence is deafening. In the wake of one of the most tumultuous years in college sports, which included conference realignment motivated by greed, several lawsuits that challenged the NCAA on antitrust grounds, and a massive scandal at Penn State that raised questions about the role of big-time college sports in university governance, multiyear scholarships made a Rocky Balboa-like comeback.
The fact that the NCAA’s scholarship proposal barely survived an override vote lends credence to the argument that the NCAA has finally done something significant. For decades, universities have denied canceling scholarships for injury or poor performance. If they were telling the truth, why did so many oppose this new policy? The large number of dissenting votes suggests that in many schools, scholarship athletes have become expendable commodities.
The NCAA’s new legislation makes the adoption of multiyear scholarships optional, thus allowing athletes and their parents to chose between a one-year contract and a multiyear educational gift. If highly talented athletes choose programs that offer multiyear scholarships over those that do not, the NCAA will have rigged the recruiting game in favor of academic values. And this is how it should be.
At schools that decide to adopt multiyear scholarships, college athletes will be students, not cheap labor. Coaches will have to focus on teaching and player development because they will have to live with their “recruiting mistakes.” Federal Graduation Rates, the best measure of whether athletes graduate within six years from the university they entered as freshmen, will likely increase dramatically. And even though these scholarships can be canceled if an athlete voluntarily withdraws from sports, no court of law will mistake them for employment contracts.
Much more remains to be done. Academic standards must be raised to prevent special admits from playing as freshmen, and the minimum GPA for playing college sport should be 2.0 in all conferences. The clustering of athletes in classes that give high grades for little or no work -- a practice for which faculty must take responsibility -- should be eliminated. Faculty senates should review coaches' rules of conduct to make sure they are consistent with academic best practices. The list could go on, but the NCAA has taken a huge step toward meaningful reform.
Allen Sack, professor and interim dean in the College of Business at the University of New Haven, played on Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team. He is also president elect of the Drake Group, a faculty organization committed to academic integrity in collegiate sports.
On Feb. 26, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team defeated the University of Florida. Immediately after the contest, on their home court of Rupp Arena, Kentucky officials presented Coach John Calipari with the game ball to commemorate what was purported to be his 500th career victory. Officials from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, however, strongly disapproved of Kentucky’s laudatory gesture, saying that the evening’s victory actually marked Calipari’s 458th career win.
Leading up to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual convention this week, most of the discussion among colleges that belong to Division III has focused on the future of the membership at the NCAA’s nonscholarship competitive level. Largely overlooked has been proposed legislation
to limit the use of male practice players which may well be the most controversial piece of legislation voted on at this year’s convention.
The Division III proposal is fairly moderate: the currently unrestricted use of male practice players would be limited to one day a week during the traditional championship season, and the number of male participants would be limited to half the starting squad size (rounded up, in the case of uneven starting numbers). Since the last convention, when the proposal was tabled for more data, I have kept my ear to the ground on discussions at the national level, most of which centered around responses from members of Division I. In the microcosm of my own Division III conference, we have recently revisited the arguments pro and con as well. I respectfully offer two reasons to support this legislation, and a recommendation for taking the discussion further on campus regardless of the outcome of the vote:
1. It creates a level playing field for those who aspire to higher competitive levels.
What is athletics about in Division III? As a component of the broader educational experience, there is first and foremost a participation opportunity. Once established, there is the chance to achieve a higher level of success within that opportunity. In other words (in the scope of this discussion about women’s athletics), you do your best to assemble a group of women who are interested in a sport (in addition to getting a college degree), educate and train them in the rules and skills of performing that sport, match them up against a group of women of like interest, and see who wins the game. There are a number of tools at hand—coaches, the weight room, nutrition counseling, summer leagues, private lessons—to help achieve higher levels of competency. The fact that we have coaches who have gone beyond these standard tools to the use of male practice players to push our women “to the next level” during the 19-week Division III playing season is a situation that bears scrutiny.
This legislation would scale back the arms race that has stepped precariously into the realm of potential Title IX violation. It certainly does not eliminate the opportunity for female athletes, if they choose, to seek practice and even competition opportunities against stronger, faster, taller young men. It simply “limits” it to the remaining 33 weeks of the year when they are not “in season” with their college teams, and it ensures that healthy women are not sitting on the sideline while men take their places in practice situations.
2. It encourages a shared institutional commitment to building roster sizes of women’s teams and discourages stopgap strategies.
Good financial planning is predicated on a variety of sound spending, saving and investment practices. If you are trying to eliminate debt, it is not sound practice to use a credit card to pay those bills. Male practice players are the credit cards of building solid rosters of female athletes. For institutions struggling with recruiting or retaining female athletes in any given sport, use of male practice players is a short term fix at best; reliance on them only delays improvement by masking the underlying problem. While weak recruiting efforts by a coach may be at fault at some institutions, it is wrong to place the blame solely on the coach or the athletics department. Recruiting in Division III is an institutional responsibility based on the divisional philosophy that athletes are students first, and there must be a coordinated effort (including a “spend money to make money” approach with recruiting budget allocations) in programs where a team or teams are consistently falling below viable roster sizes.
It is important to note that there are more than 6 million girls participating in high school sports in this country, yet there are only 166,000 participating in college athletics--less than 3 percent of the pool. The rationale that “girls just don’t want to play” does not hold sway in the face of these numbers. Injuries can also decimate healthy rosters—but that can happen with men’s rosters too. Is the solution to allow part-time students or some other such stop gap measure if this happens with a men’s team? I don’t know too many people in Division III who would support that option, but if we are obligated to treat our men and women equitably, then perhaps that discussion must be on the table as well, or we need to eliminate such quick fixes altogether.
The proposed legislation allows for women’s teams who might have a roster equivalent of less than two full starting squads to practice in a scrimmage setting with male practice players once a week; coaches would use other drills and skill instruction the remainder of the time. It also allows bona fide coaches (whether paid or voluntary) to participate in scrimmage-type situations at their discretion. In other words, you can use your credit card to manage temporary shortfalls, but there are spending limits, and everyone needs to work together to find better cash flow for the long haul.
Regardless of your institution’s position, this proposal should at minimum prompt a healthy and objective re-visitation of gender equity and Title IX practices in the athletic department. Last year, an e-mail inquiry sent through the National Association of Division III Administrators' listserv to members asking them to identify the Title IX coordinator on their campuses raised a red flag on the lack of knowledge of this subject. The majority who responded indicated that they (mainly athletics directors or senior woman administrators) were primarily responsible for this duty. The fact is, Title IX is a federal law that affects far more than just athletics, including academic policies, student services, housing, financial aid, and all student organizations. It is thus highly unlikely that an athletics department staff member would be responsible for all of these areas, in addition to athletics. This misunderstanding can have serious institutional consequences.
I would suggest that institutions use discussion of this legislative proposal as an opportunity to do a Title IX and gender equity review of their athletic departments. A recently released study authored by John Cheslock, Ph. D., of the Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Arizona (with support from the Women’s Sports Foundation) analyzing Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) data indicates that Title IX compliance is far from a fait accompli. Presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and Title IX coordinators can take a look at how their institution is graded in this study to get an initial sense of their athletic departments’ level of compliance. It should also prompt an examination of institutional compliance using the “three-prong” test approved by the Office of Civil Rights. A comprehensive Q&A regarding gender equity and Title IX compliance along with other educational resources can be found on the NCAA’s Web site.
Thirty five years after the passage of Title IX, there is still plenty of evidence to suggest that gender equity practices continue to bear examination both within and outside of athletic departments on our campuses. Considering that the provision of equitable participation opportunities for males and females is one of the core tenets of the Division III philosophy, limiting the use of male practice players would be a good faith demonstration of Division III’s commitment to this important principle.
Donna Ledwin is the commissioner of the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference and a member of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee. She is also the mother of a 10-year-old daughter who lives to play ice hockey.
You have seen the advertisements from a mobile telephone company cleverly combining the names of several cities and countries to emphasize the network’s broad coverage. It occurred to me that such combinations could be applied as well to a discussion of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), which tracks the academic performance of student-athletes and penalizes squads whose student-athletes do not meet certain academic performance metrics. Welcome to the University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn.
The new world of the NCAA academic eligibility standards pivot on a key yet scarcely mentioned variable: an institution’s central academic policies. As such my argument is this: a collection of academic policies, many or of all which were developed with no thought given to NCAA eligibility standards, influences greatly how the new standards will play out on any individual campus. Academic calendars, course drop policies, course scheduling practices, transfer policies and the like now mean that a student-athlete at one school may have a very different experience vis-à-vis NCAA academic standards than the student-athlete at a different institution. And the student-athlete who attends the University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn will have the easiest time of all if good ‘ole U of O adopts certain policies, but not others.
Take the calendar for dropping a course with a grade of W. At the University of Tennessee students (and student-athletes) must decide to drop a course by the forty-first day of the semester, before having the chance to submit midterm examinations and papers. This early deadline means that there is precious little time, and only limited inputs, for deciding to drop the course or not. By contrast, students at the University of Kansas may drop a course through the sixtieth day of the semester. Furthermore, students withdrawing from a course at Tennessee after the forty-first day face the possibility of earning a WF grade that counts as an F for calculating the semester gpa. Not so at Kansas, where the WF is not calculated in the gpa. Or, the student could be studying at Penn State, where the deadline to drop a course with a W is the sixtieth day. Like at Tennessee, the student there faces earning a WF grade if the course is dropped after the deadline, and the grade counts as an F for calculating the gpa. However, the Penn State student (and student-athlete) might be lucky enough to earn a WN (no grade) in this situation, which is not calculated in the gpa.
Attendance policies and course scheduling play important roles as well. Absences accrued by University of Florida student-athletes traveling to athletic competitions are excused, and faculty at Auburn University are required to schedule make up sessions for in-class examinations and assignments missed by students and student-athletes with excused absences. Not so at Tennessee, so that an athlete who misses a quiz or even examination does not have to be offered an opportunity to make up these in-class assignments (and as Faculty Athletics Representative at Tennessee I can tell you that not infrequently student-athletes’ grades suffer because of these missed opportunities).
Missing classes due to travel to competition, a primary variable in academic success, is less of a problem at the University of Iowa, where so few courses are offered on Fridays, a prime athletic travel day, that one academic college at the university is offering to pay departments to list more Friday courses. The announced goal for the return of Friday classes at Iowa is to end abusive drinking associated with “Thirsty Thursdays.” But another ramification of this change would be a sharp increase in the number of classes Iowa student-athletes will miss.
Grading scales can also matter. At Tennessee and Rutgers, athletes and students study in a system, nearly unique to these two schools, that assigns full letter grades and plus grades, but not minus grades. Other schools assign only full letter grades. Students and student-athletes at North Carolina State and the University of Alabama enjoy the opportunity to balance lower course grades with grades of A+ that carry 4.3 grade points. And speaking of course grades, does a grade of D count towards requirements in the major? They do if you are an Oregon Duck, and they do at the University of Georgia, but not if you are enrolled in a major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Perhaps no other policy plays a bigger role in determining progress towards degree eligibility for college athletes.
Myriad other policies come into play. Does the institution accept grades of D from transfer students? The University of Arkansas accepts up to six such transfer credits, but Tennessee does not. Are mid-year transfers accepted? At Vanderbilt they are not, so that its basketball coach was not allowed to sign a prominent basketball player when he wished to transfer from the University of Arizona (he now plays at Tennessee). How many courses may be repeated, how are the repeated course grades calculated, and are there other restrictions on course repeats? At Tennessee a maximum of three lower division courses may be repeated, with the higher grade replacing the lower score. At Ohio University departments set their own course repeat rules, and many allow up to five repeated courses at either the lower or upper division levels.
The relationship between academic policies and NCAA metrics has created a dilemma for which I have no immediate solution. One size does not and should not fit all in higher education. Our universities have different missions, serve different populations, and define success differently. But when addressing academic reform the NCAA does try to make one size fit all for very good reasons that have to do with fairness, establishing a level field of competition, and now to establish a reasonable chance of graduating from college. Unwittingly, its new academic expectations and regulations have upped the importance of the kinds of central academic policies operating as a whole that I have described here.
Perhaps there is no solution to this dilemma, but the NCAA’s academic reforms do teach us a valuable lesson that extends beyond athletes and athletic departments: University administrators would do well to approach key academic policies in toto when considering the academic expectations they have for all of their students. One policy alone will not determine students’ performances, but the sum of a school’s academic policies does produce an individual campus culture, certain academic expectations, and the likelihood of success or failure. At most schools these policies probably did not develop at the same time and as a coherent whole, and indeed contradictory policies may exist on the same campus.
Academic policies adopted piecemeal likely have escaped the kind of careful, cumulative review I am calling for here. Given their importance in promoting student success they should be approached as a whole, and reviewed to determine if they reflect the goals of the university. Certainly I am not calling for a cynical plan to alter policies only to facilitate an athlete’s academic eligibility, but we can take advantage of the recent NCAA academic success legislation to think more intentionally about our academic policies and how they impact all students. In short, we can learn from the NCAA.
There are many best practices to guide such a review. For a start I suggest reviewing the academic policies of the University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn, proud home of the Bobcatnittanylionjayhawkhawkeyevolunteers.
Todd A. Diacon
Todd Diacon is vice provost for academic operations and faculty athletics representative at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I men's basketball tournament resumes today. After the nets have been cut at the end of this year’s Final Four, after CBS plays “One Shining Moment” for the umpteenth time, another batch of freshmen will declare themselves eligible for the National Basketball Association draft after only one year in college.
The “one and done” trend is continuing, year after year. The numbers are the same, if not growing. Only the names are different this year: instead of Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, and Derrick Rose, it’ll (probably) be Al-Farouq Aminu, Demar DeRozen, Greg Monroe and BJ Mullens. Under a rule passed by the NBA and its players' union in 2005, elite basketball prospects are required to be at least 19 years old and at least one year removed from their senior year in high school in order to enter the draft. The NBA’s current policy essentially forces prospects, many of whom are ready to earn a living professionally, to play collegiately -- for no pay -- in what is essentially the NBA’s minor league system, the NCAA.
The number of college freshmen drafted by the NBA has risen considerably since the rule’s implementation: 2 in 2006, 8 in 2007, and 12 in 2008.
From the NBA’s standpoint, the rule functions marvelously. As prospects get national exposure and have their skills polished by distinguished collegiate coaches, the NBA doesn’t have to pay a dime. Its scouts don’t have to travel to obscure high schools; they can focus solely on the college and European ranks.
It’s not bad for the college teams for whom these “one and dones” are playing, either. One year of Derrick Rose propelled Memphis into its first championship game since 1973. And when the team is winning, jerseys and merchandise are selling, and fund raising, at least for athletics, is growing.
Despite the obvious benefits of receiving a superstar player -- if only for one year -- some college coaches are seeing big negatives. Tom Izzo, the head coach for Michigan State University, told Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette that, as a result of the NBA eligibility rule, cheating in the collegiate ranks is getting worse. Lute Olsen, the former head coach at the University of Arizona, told the Los Angeles Times last year that the current rule with one-year players is “a farce.”
The rule has created a façade of moral purity in the collegiate ranks. People are to believe that these so-called “student-athletes” are receiving the genuine, untainted university experience. Unfortunately, they are not. Too many have as light a course load as possible in the fall semester and, regardless of course load in the spring, conference tournaments and preparing for the opportunity to participate in March Madness overrules the spring semester. This leaves the summer as a time to try and “catch up,” in addition to the unofficial requirement that players remain on campus to work out for the next season.
Moreover, not only is the rule hypocritical, it’s disproportionately harmful to underprivileged African American youth, who make up the majority of basketball players at big-time programs. By the time these young men reach college, they already know that the family’s economic burdens are theirs to carry.
Brandon Jennings, ranked by many as the nation’s number-one point guard recruit last year, recently bypassed his college commitment to play for Olson at Arizona, instead opting to play professionally for a European team, Virtus Roma. Jennings knew he wouldn’t fully capitalize on the university experience, so he made other plans. He chose a more honest path (to Olson's dismay).
In fact, he’ll probably get a better education traveling the streets of Rome than in he would have in one year on campus. In a recent article in ESPN The Magazine, Jennings says he’s learning to be “mentally tough” across the pond, and that it’s “great preparation” for the NBA, as well as for life in general. “It's a big learning experience over here,” Jennings says.
Jennings grew up in Compton, Calif., in a single-parent home. Instead of playing collegiately for the Wildcats, he chose to start earning a living for his family immediately.
In baseball, an individual can declare for the First-Year Player Draft if he has graduated from high school. Players from four-year colleges can enter the draft only if they have completed their junior or senior years, or if they are at least 21 years old.
Why can’t basketball function like baseball?
The current eligibility rule will remain in effect through the 2010-11 academic year. When the NBA and its players union sit down to evaluate their policy choices, they should offer these young men two choices. If they are truly ready for the NBA, or if they need the financial support that comes with playing professionally, they should be able to declare for the NBA at 18. If they genuinely want the college experience, they should sign a two-year commitment to a university.
Although a two-year commitment is a far cry from actually earning a college degree, it does allow college basketball players to at least get a taste of the tangible benefits of higher education. The tangible benefits include improved academic performance as many more would be motivated to meet the rigors of their academic work -- even if only for eligibility purposes. If a player opts to declare for the NBA draft after one year, he does not have to be concerned with even the spring semester of his first year. They also will be exposed to more professors and courses, which might prove to be useful should they decide to complete their degree later in life after their professional careers or eligibility ends.
Mark (pseudonym) walks into my office every day to practice reading and writing. He may be quick and athletic on the track, but in front of a book he is reserved and awkward. I am one of the learning specialists he sees, and when he first came to me, he could barely compose a full paragraph. Now, just a few months into his freshman year of college, he can write three-page papers that earn him Cs.
Mark will probably never be a Rhodes Scholar. He is not likely to attend graduate school and probably will not earn Latin honors as an undergraduate. However, as our few months together have shown, he is far more capable than his ACT score indicates. Because of his hard work and my colleagues' and my commitment to his learning, Mark has a chance to earn a college degree. He is on the verge of success, yet he is one of the athletes Gerald Gurney would have denied NCAA admission because Mark’s ACT score was too low.
Gurney brings up some important points in his Feb. 7 article, “Toughen NCAA Standards for Freshmen.” In college athletics, eligibility is often emphasized over student development. Consequently, coaches and support staff may be tempted to engage in academic misconduct to keep underprepared athletes eligible. However, Gurney’s proposed solution, to raise NCAA admission standards for incoming freshmen, would amount to nothing less than discrimination against the thousands of high school athletes whose urban and rural schools cannot provide them with the quality education they deserve.
Our college athletes are blessed with remarkable athletic abilities, yet as readers of Inside Higher Ed know, the vast majority of them will not become professional athletes. Thus, earning a college degree is their best chance to attain the kind of middle-class lifestyle most readers here find customary.
My fellow learning specialists and I are committed to our athletes’ learning, and we are trained and prepared to work with any athlete who comes through our doors, no matter how deficient his or her skills may be. Not all of them are success stories, but every year across the country, hundreds, maybe thousands, of athletes become the first in their families to earn a college degree.
If Gurney’s proposed solution were adopted, many of these athletes would be denied this opportunity. They would remain the high school superstars whose high schools could not — and whose colleges would not — provide them the quality education they deserve and, most importantly, are capable of attaining.
Academic misconduct may be a systemic problem, but the solution should not be denying admission to those most disadvantaged. Gurney is right to criticize the 2003 NCAA reform, but he is denouncing the wrong particulars. As Gurney’s predecessor Sandra K. Meyer suggested six years ago in the Phi Kappa Phi Forum, the problem results from the unintended consequences of the 40-60-80 progress-toward-degree policy.
According to this mandate, athletes are expected to complete 40% of their major’s requirements by the end of their second year, 60% by the end of their third year, and 80% by the end of their fourth year. Failure to comply means ineligibility. Consequently, while most college freshmen are sampling various classes and exploring potential majors, athletes are pressured to choose quickly the major of least resistance and stick with it. Athletes taking remedial courses, which do not count toward degree progress, feel this pressure most forcefully. The implied message is that eligibility is more important than student development.
When athletes are dictated which classes to take and when, as happens often, they become increasingly disengaged from academics, learning becomes all the more difficult, especially for the most underprepared. If there is a systemic problem of academic misconduct, it is not because too many underprepared athletes are admitted to college. It is because our institutions give these athletes the impression that classes are no more than hoops to jump through — the easier the jump, the better.
The solution is to prioritize student development and learning as high as eligibility. At the policy level, this means revising the progress-toward-degree mandate to allow athletes more latitude when exploring and changing majors. This does not mean returning to the time when athletes could take whichever classes sounded easiest, without any intention to graduate. A policy is needed that can hold athletes accountable for making progress yet is flexible enough to allow reasonable career exploration.
On the ground level, athletes must be granted autonomy over their own education. They must be encouraged to make academic decisions for themselves and supported along the way. Learning specialists cannot be the only ones emphasizing the student domain of “student-athlete.” Coaches and advisers need to communicate the importance of learning and development, too.
My fellow learning specialists and I have helped countless athletes become success stories. Our experience testifies to the fact that an ACT score does not reflect an athlete’s innate ability. However, our experience also testifies to the fact that learning can be either helped or hindered by the athlete’s educational milieu. The NCAA should maintain its admission policy but revise the progress-toward-degree mandate.
Where student development is a concern and learning is promoted, many of even the most high-risk athletes can succeed. Rather than shut out disadvantaged athletes from college athletics, we should welcome them into a culture of learning. Within such a culture, they will have a legitimate chance at success — without committing academic misconduct.
In college, the name of the game is learning. When advisers, coaches, learning specialists, and, let us not forget, the athletes themselves begin playing the same game, we all have a chance at winning. In this case, the prize is not just a trophy. It is the future well-being of student-athletes like Mark.
Bradley R.H. Bethel
Bradley R.H. Bethel is an assistant learning specialist at Ohio State University. His views are his alone and do not represent those of his university.