Sports Columns

May 22, 2014

Tom Lindley: NCAA forcing progress in the academic field

Is it better to recruit a top-notch basketball player knowing that he probably won’t graduate or pass on him and deprive the young man from at least going to college and being exposed to once-in-a-lifetime experiences?

It was a tough question. The player in mind had athletic skills; there wasn’t much doubt about that. His academic performance in high school painted a bleaker assessment.

Wrestling with the decision was Gene Bartow, who at the time was a new head coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It was more than 30 years ago when Bartow took a chance on this player with a shaky academic background. The recruit played well during his college career but didn’t graduate.

Whose interest was served?

The conversation with Bartow came to mind recently as I read the NCAA’s announcement that 36 teams failed to meet minimum requirements for their Academic Progress Rates, meaning they would be ineligible for tournament play next season.

Teams must achieve a four-year rate of 930 or better, which equates to a graduation rate of about 50 percent, to avoid a postseason ban. The Oklahoma State football team — the focus of national controversy last fall due to a Sports Illustrated expose of the program — narrowly avoided that penalty.

There was good news and bad associated with the NCAA’s findings. First, the majority of schools and teams got passing grades. That’s important because the primary reason for attending college is to get an education and subsequently graduate. (You don’t hear as much talk about “dumb jocks” much anymore.)

The bad news was that some programs failed to ensure student-athletes demonstrate as much success in the classroom as they do on the playing field. This was especially true among the historically black colleges and universities, which received about half of the sanctions meted out by the NCAA.

Yet that seems unfair. Some argue that throwing money at the problem won’t solve education, but in this case, programs that help students overcome roadblocks in the classroom do succeed. The big, revenue-producing athletic programs that can afford top-notch counseling have the results to prove it. Their APR scores are improving.

The NCAA has offered money to augment academic resources at some universities. Unfortunately it’s not been enough.

A student admitted to a college has the potential to graduate if he or she is willing to do the work. That doesn’t mean any degree, but nevertheless a valuable one, which can open doors to a profitable and fulfilling life. If a student enters school with a goal less than that, pretty much everyone is wasting their time and money.

Give the nation’s colleges and NCAA credit for recognizing that athletic departments once didn’t take seriously the academic performance of their student-athletes. The results show college teams are doing better in the classroom. Major powers in college athletics have made major investments in academic support programs, and those are paying off.

The investments are so strong at some universities that the academic centers have become attractive recruiting features for student athletes.

Unfortunately it’s not the case at all schools, especially at minority-based institutions that are strong on tradition and mission but short on money to implement necessary enrichment opportunities. That seems doubly unfair because they accept many first-generation students who face other stressful challenges involving finances, sudden independence and academic load. These NCAA institutions live and play under the same rules but lack the equally necessary academic support that other teams enjoy.

They may have athletic trainers but not academic advisers.

Maybe it’s too much to expect all students to master their academic responsibilities under the rigors of playing on a college team. It’s a tough load for almost anyone. Slip up in either area and the consequences are heavy.

Yet, the job of any coach, instructor or institution should be to ensure that students are successful on and off the field.

Give the NCAA credit for making students-athletes more accountable for their academic responsibilities. At the same time, it’s clear that much more can — and should — be done.

It’s a mandate that UAB’s Bartow, a basketball mastermind, would have welcomed.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. News Service. You can write to him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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