CHAPEL HILL— In a few short months, thousands of college football players will put on their helmets and pads and begin final preparations for the season and the goal of playing in the Orange Bowl — this year’s site of the Bowl Championship Series National Championship game.
College sports are a central aspect of life at many colleges and universities. For marketing purposes, college administrators hope for strong athletic success in marquee sports to reach out to prospective students. Still, those who participate in college sports are supposed be students first, athletes second.
It’s the student-athlete aspect of college athletics that have been placed under the microscope recently by the NCAA in its attempt to increase graduation rates. The 2003 NCAA graduation rate report indicates that 62 percent of student-athletes graduated within six years of entering college, so the 2003 report is based on students that entered college in the 1996-97 school year.
Owing to the NCAA’s methods, a student who transfers to a different school is counted as a nongraduate for his original school — and whether he gets a degree in the new school, his academic performance is not counted in calculating the second school’s graduation rate.
“In college athletics, the focus is on the individual athlete,” NCAA and former Indiana University President Miles Brand said in a recent speech. “He or she is a student first. Their [sic] primary reason for attending a college or university is — or should be — to obtain an education.”
Recently, NCAA officials passed recommendations that would place more pressure on schools to increase the graduation rates among the various sports. Programs that do not meet a yet-to-be-established graduation rate requirement could face probation and suspension from post-season play.
The NCAA is scheduled to review the 2004 and 2005 graduation reports before setting the rate limits.
Brand called the reform a “landmark decision” when it was announced.
“These are strong and well-thought out reforms that are critically necessary to ensuring that student-athletes are academically successful,” Brand said.
How will the NCAA actually enforce this new reform — or can it? According to a review of the 2003 graduation report conducted for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, several schools that had teams in postseason play in football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball had graduation rates below 50 percent.
In football, BCS national champion Louisiana State had a graduation rate of 40 percent. The football graduation rates of 13 of the 25 programs in the final USA Today/ESPN Top 25 coaches’ poll were below the 50 percent.
A further review of the six major conferences that make up the BCS — ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, SEC, and Pac-10 — found that five of the seven conference champions had graduation rates below 50 percent. Miami and West Virginia shared the Big East title and both had graduation rates below 50 percent.
The overall graduation rate among football players is 54 percent.
In men’s college basketball, the rate is worse — 44 percent. National champion Connecticut’s rate was 27 percent, as was runner-up Georgia Tech’s. This year’s title game featured the lowest combined graduation rate since 2002, when Maryland (0 percent graduation rate in 2001-02) defeated Indiana (20 percent).
Of the 65 teams in this year’s NCAA tournament, 46 either had a graduation rate below 50 percent or did not have a graduation rate listed in the report.
Women’s basketball, however, does not have graduation rates as low as those in football and men’s basketball. Women athletes, in general, graduate at higher rates than their male counterparts — 70 percent to 55 percent. The rate for women’s basketball was 66 percent in 2003.
Women’s basketball national champion Connecticut’s rate was 67 percent, while runner-up Tennessee’s was 67 percent. Only 13 of the 64 teams in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament had graduation rates below 50 percent or had no rate listed.
Ultimately, if the NCAA follows through on its plans to ban some teams from postseason play for low graduation rates, it will place many of the marquee programs in college sports on the hot seat. How the NCAA will handle historically dominant programs whose graduation rates are below the required rate will test the validity of these reforms. The NCAA reaps billions of dollars in television contracts and merchandise sales each year during the postseason, and marquee programs help drive the interest.
Beer and Circus author Murray Sperber, however, said he doubts if any program will ever have a scholarship taken away or suffer a postseason ban. That’s because the NCAA, Sperber said, would set graduation rates to benefit the various programs.
“I’m skeptical and I think I have a perfect right to be,” said Sperber, a faculty member at Indiana University.
Sperber said the NCAA’s contract with CBS to televise the men’s basketball tournament could prevent the reform from succeeding. “They’re basically in the business of protecting their money and the huge revenue that comes into their departments,” Sperber said.
Apart from facing stern challenges from the business aspect of collegiate athletics, the NCAA’s reform will need to be strict enough to prevent colleges from dumbing down their graduation requirements in order to achieve compliance without addressing the problem. The presence of those daunting obstacles make it not hard to wonder whether this latest reform will stick or just be another in a long list of well-intentioned NCAA reforms that failed.
Shannon Blosser is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.