Celizic: Time for NCAA to Get Serious About Education

Education secretary Arne Duncan is right to ask that college basketball teams have a 40 percent graduation rate

To listen to the reaction from the college basketball establishment, you’d think that Barack Obama’s secretary of education has just asked them to climb Mt. Everest barefoot in their boxer shorts and T-shirts.

What Arne Duncan actually did ask was that college basketball teams have a 40 percent graduation rate. Players in good academic standing who leave early for the NBA or to transfer to another school aren’t counted in figuring that rate.

Any team that can’t meet that minimum standard wouldn’t be allowed to participate in March Madness.

If that rule were in effect this year, 11 of the 65 teams that began the NCAA tournament would be out, including one of the No. 1 seeds, Kentucky, whose graduation rate is 31 percent. The only way that can be considered good is by comparison to Maryland’s rate, which is 8 percent. You would think the school could graduate that many kids just by accident.

I like this rule. It requires that the kids the TV announcers insist on calling student-athletes and even scholar-athletes actually be required to learn something during their years in college. (They get six years to graduate under Duncan’s proposal.) It demands that colleges actually educate athletes instead of using them to fill the coffers of the athletic department and to make the alumni proud.

The NCAA doesn’t like it. Nor do many basketball coaches. Of course they wouldn’t. It holds them to a standard. It demands that they do their jobs.

The NCAA argues that it has its own standards, which it does. As with everything the NCAA does, it’s not as simple as seeing how many kids graduate. It measures a bunch of factors and spits out a score. If a school doesn’t meet the baseline score for two straight years, it can lose scholarships or even be banned from postseason play.

But where Duncan’s 40 percent graduation rate would keep 11 schools out, the NCAA’s stringent criteria has kept just one school out, and it’s not one many people know of: Centenary. Three more — Georgia Tech, Tennessee and New Mexico State — have had scholarships taken away.

And even the NCAA’s minimal standards draw complaints.

Coaches love to whine that any rules that establish academic standards deny the chance to get an education to a poor — and highly talented — kid. But it’s the coaches who don’t want to be denied the opportunity to put a uniform on a kid who has no interest in getting an education. If the coaches were worried about poor kids being shut out of college, they’d be raising money for scholarships for disadvantaged kids of every stripe, including those who can’t play the kazoo, let alone basketball.

Nobody’s saying kids can’t go to college anyway. Colleges can admit anyone they wish. Duncan’s just saying if you’re going to exploit kids for the betterment of the athletic department, you have an obligation to educate them.

But listen to Bruce Pearl, the Tennessee coach who has lost scholarships because he can’t meet even the NCAA’s minimal standards.

“I share the pain in not having student-athletes graduate,” Pearl told the Associated Press. "But I don't want to deny the opportunity to students that aren't prepared. And I'm going to stand up here and I'm going to fight for the student-athletes that come in and aren't as prepared."

Puh-lease! Pearl’s going to fight to get kids into school who have less interest in going to class than a cat has in taking swimming lessons. He’s going to fight for the right to give a college scholarship to kids who couldn’t locate Russia from Sarah Palin’s front porch.

And he could still do that. Although Duncan would raise the bar slowly over time, he’s not asking that every kid graduate or even go to class all that often. Under his proposal, all kids who leave early for the NBA don’t go against the count. And six of every 10 kids don’t have to graduate. So Pearl or any other coach can have nine academic failures and six actual students on a 15-man roster.

That means every starter and four subs can screw off. Where’s the hardship in that?

NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said the NCAA wants to improve academic performance. Then came the big “but,” which is that they don’t want to do it Duncan’s way.

“What we want to do at the end of the day is change behavior so that when people come to college, they have to be prepared to do the work and institutions are prepared to support them academically,” Williams said.

It sounds good, but the nation’s institutions of higher learning have had infinity years — or close to it — to raise their standards for athletes. And still there are 11 schools in this year’s tournament that can’t graduate 40 percent of their players in six years.

The 11 and their rates, according to the AP, are: Maryland (8 percent graduation rate), California (20 percent), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (29 percent), Washington (29 percent), Tennessee (30 percent), Kentucky 31 percent, Baylor (36 percent), Missouri (36 percent), New Mexico State (36 percent), Clemson (37 percent), Georgia Tech (38 percent) and Louisville (38 percent).

There are some big programs in there, programs that make a lot of money by giving scholarships to kids who either can’t do the work or aren’t asked to. Either way, it’s gone beyond shameful.

Normally, I don’t like it when Washington meddles in sports, particularly the professional variety. But this is one time when a bureaucrat is right.

Arne Duncan knows from hoops. He played varsity ball at Harvard. He also managed to graduate. It shouldn’t be unreasonable to ask that four out of 10 athletes do the same.

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