An NCAA panel fronted by Condoleezza Rice, the diplomat turned apologist for big-time collegiate sports, a couple of weeks ago came out with some recommendations for reform of same, prompted by last fall’s revelations of the existence of a widespread black market in the signing of top-level basketball prospects. As could have been predicted, the result was a fizzle, emitting a bang closer to that of a BB gun than a cannon.
The result brought to mind a quote from the red-nosed Mathias “Paddy” Bauler, a saloon keeper and Chicago alderman of the 1940s and ‘50s who, after the 1955 mayoral election of Richard J. Daley, jubilantly (and correctly) cried “Chicago ain’t ready for reform!”
Instead of shaking up an institution whose corruption surpasses that of old-time Chicago politics, the Rice panel called for things like permitting more contact between college athletes and agents, taking closer control over the summer-basketball camps where the avalanche of shoe-company money behind the fall’s bribery allegations begins, and strengthening penalties for rule-violating schools and coaches beyond the present wrist slaps. Big deal, huh?
It came out against the much-mocked “one-and-done” regime in college hoops, which allows top pro prospects to double-park in college until they’re NBA-eligible at age 19, but the colleges can’t do that without the cooperation of the NBA and its players’ union and that won’t come until 2020 at the earliest, those entities say. So don’t worry Kentucky and Duke fans, you’re safe for now.
Also predictably, the loudest voices critical of Rice, et al, came from the crowd that thinks that paying college athletes will cure all ills. Anyone who’s given five minutes’ thought to that position can see that it would raise more issues than it answers, including whom to pay (all college athletes male and female or just football and basketballers?); how much should be paid and on what basis (should starters make more than subs or stars more than ordinary starters?); and whether, as employees, the athletes should have a voice in their terms of employment, such as practice and games’ scheduling and travel.
Further, students of human nature will note that whatever permissible salary levels would be set above the table, another and more-generous one would quickly develop under it. “What they want to pay you is chump change,” procurer A will tell super-prospect B. “We’ll do better than that.”
Missing from the recommendations is anything having to do with the college side of college sports, which by me and others is what really stinks about NCAA World. The only reported mention of academics in the Rice report came in the threat that if the NBA won’t play ball over one-and-done the colleges could unilaterally deal with it by banning freshman eligibility the way they used to, but that makes so much sense it has little likelihood of enactment.
To find strong and reasoned arguments against college sports’ academic status quo one should to go to the website of the Drake Group, an association of college faculty members and other reform advocates founded in 1999 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and now run out of the University of New Haven in Connecticut. It’s founding manifesto leaves no doubt about how it views the current state of affairs.
“The NCAA’s continuing success at professionalizing big-time college athletics puts academic corruption on par with prostitution, illegal gambling and speeding violations as acceptable forms of misconduct in America—it’s okay as long as you don’t get caught” it says. “Athlete are clustered in majors that have easy or no educational content. Most of their course work is phony…masked by grade inflation, outright grade changes and excessive independent study courses.” And you should hear them when they’re really mad.
As any parent of a teen can tell you, a full-ride scholarship to a four-year university is no small thing, worth on its face anywhere from about $100,000 at a public institution to three or four times that amount at a private one. That’s more than adequate compensation for 18-to-22-year-olds and is in addition to the much larger annual income college grads can expect to earn in their professional lives. But for the jock in the so-called “revenue sports,” the bars to getting a degree are high, beginning with the full-time job that team membership entails and including a way-premature dunk into the publicity cauldron that is top-level sports.
The NCAA contends that its “student-athletes” graduate at a higher rate than students generally, but in an article on the Drake Group website Shaun R. Harper, director of the Center on Race and Equity at the University of Southern California, writes that doesn’t apply to athletes at the 65 universities in the so-called “Power Five” conferences (the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12 and ACC), which command almost all the attention and money in college sports. His figures, taken from 2012 through 2016, show that 69.3% of varsity athletes at those schools graduated in six years or fewer compared to 76.3% of all undergraduates, despite their access to easy courses, friendly profs and substantial academic support.
The rub really comes with the black athletes who comprise 55% of the varsity football players and 56% of the men’s basketballers at the “Power Five” schools, Harper’s piece says. That’s despite the fact that black men make up only 2.4% of the undergraduate student bodies of those institutions. Their graduation rate was 55%, 21 percentage points below that of all students.
Five of the 14 members of the Rice panel were African Americans (Ms. Rice, former basketball stars Grant Hill and David Robinson, ex-coach John Thompson and Gene Smith, a vice president at Ohio State University), but the group didn’t address the specific academic problems of the black athlete or the picture their recruitment paints of higher education in the U.S. The discrepancy between the black male athlete and other students of their race is greatest in the SEC schools of the South; at the Universities of Florida, Auburn, Georgia and Alabama black males made up between 2.2% and 3.6% of the student bodies but between 77.7% and 72.5% of the football and basketball squads. Something’s out of whack there, don’t you think?