The Stats Don't Lie

Their scoring may be high, but college basketball players' graduation rates are low.

This pattern is true locally, as well. Take Billups's own Buffs. As of last year, the University of Colorado at Boulder boasted an overall graduation rate of about 60 percent -- except when it came to big-time student-athletes. Only 48 percent of the football team earned their degrees in the most recent survey. And basketball? A whopping 83 percent of scholarship basketball players left CU without a degree in the early '90s. That doesn't even begin to take into account the gut courses and cheap majors many student-athletes glide through in their spare time away from the field. What's saddest, and perhaps most telling, about all of this is that there is no good reason these athletes can't graduate at a higher rate. Not so long ago, a university sport was the equivalent of a full-time job. But today, thanks to NCAA reforms, athletes -- even ones in the pressure cookers of Division I-A revenue sports -- are not permitted to spend any more time on their sports than your average work-study student spends paying down his tuition through campus labor. The pity is that while a part-time job does not excuse failure in the classroom, sports often still do.

The explanation, of course, is money. There is no other reason on earth why institutions of higher learning would tolerate such a failure in their mission to educate young men and women. This year, CU-Boulder anticipates taking in more than $8 million from its football program alone. Add money received from the Big 12 Conference ($4.6 million), radio and television rights ($1 million), signage ($585,000), licensing of the university's logo ($365,000) and a contract to clothe its players from head to toe in Nike gear ($1.092 million), and you begin to get a dollars-and-cents idea of why is it so easy to forget about academics. (Colorado State University anticipates more than $2 million from football this year, a number that officials there expect to rise as a result of the team's recent on-field successes.) Yet, for the 1999-2000 school year, CU-Boulder has set aside only $500,000 for academic counseling for all of its student-athletes. For comparison's sake, that's about the same amount the university is paying for its sports media-relations staff, for which the athletic department has its own office separate from the university's general PR staff. What the grotesque disparity signals is that many student-athletes are, in effect, less students at the university than employees of it.

None of this is particularly big news, but it came to mind several weeks ago during a press conference at the University of Colorado at Denver. The gathering was to celebrate UCD's decision to become a regional office for an organization called the National Consortium for Academics and Sports. Among other programs, the consortium offers an opportunity for professional and ex-college athletes who never completed their degrees to return to school and earn a diploma. In exchange, the athletes agree to perform a certain amount of community service. The national office decided to base a regional office in Denver because of all the sports teams -- and, thus, ex-athletes -- in the area.

Patrick Merewether

The program is admirable, and it may even work to help keep young high school students focused on the work at hand rather than pipe dreams of a lucrative -- but extremely unlikely -- professional contract. (A recent study showed that young people are more inclined to listen to athletes than any other role model.) Yet even supporters of the consortium concede that there would be no need for such a program if there weren't a problem getting student-athletes out of college with their diplomas in the first place. "In an ideal world, we wouldn't need this," says Danny Martinez, associate vice chancellor for enrollment and student affairs at UCD. "But we live in something less than that." In other words, UCD's new program, well-intentioned as it is, offers merely a patch, a rear-entry education program.

Still, for schools infatuated with counting the money collected from 80,000 screaming football fans rather than the number of power forwards being sent into the world with degrees, the consortium's most valuable contribution to the debate over student-athletes may be its discovery that there is a high cost to permitting college athletes to skip class. Since it started in 1985, the organization has signed up 186 universities that have agreed to pay the tuition costs for athletes who attended the school but did not graduate. In the past fifteen years, these schools have paid out about $115 million to make up for what they should have done in the first place. Only in NCAA Division I-A athletics would it seem like good financial sense to send a young man to school with the understanding that his priority was playing ball -- and then commit to educating him once this was over and he found himself wondering what happened to his diploma.

If there is another approach out there that makes sense, it may be yet another UCD program, which tackles the worst offender of the student-athlete/university contract. Some of the lowest graduation rates can be found among college basketball players. This is because the NCAA is the NBA's minor league: Unlike baseball and hockey, college is the only place a young basketball player can go to highlight his talents. In years past, players agreed to stick out the full four years because it helped them "mature their game." It meant they were in school for all the wrong reasons, but at least they stayed. Today, however, the pros increasingly are less interested in matured players than immediate fixes -- something new to show the fans. Evidence? Seven of the top ten players drafted out of college into the NBA last year were underclassmen. (In the past three years, four players have been signed directly out of high school.)

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