The Stats Don't Lie

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

If you live in Colorado and follow basketball at all, you certainly know about Chauncey Billups, homegrown sporting legend, one of our finest success stories. You can survey his accomplishments on the official home page of the Denver Nuggets, the corporate division for which Billups currently works.

He was a Denver schoolboy standout, named Mr. Colorado Basketball three times, and an All-American at George Washington High School in 1995, his senior year. When it came time to select a college, he decided to stay home and attended the University of Colorado, where his 18.5-point scoring average was enough to earn him a designation as a second-team All-American in his sophomore year. In 1997 he was selected in the first round -- the third player chosen in the entire NBA draft -- by the Boston Celtics. After a trade and a brief stay in Toronto, he was acquired by Denver just before the 1998-99 season, thus completing the circle back to his roots: the prodigal playmaking son. Since then he has established himself as a solid member of the Nuggets' core team. Last year he averaged just under fourteen points a game, led the team in three-pointers, and ranked second among NBA players in free-throw percentage.

Those of you quick with math, however, may notice one thing that Chauncey Billups did not do: He did not graduate from college. In fact, he took advantage of CU's considerable and reputable academic offerings for exactly two years before bailing out to the NBA. It is a fine example of why athletes prefer to substitute their stats for their stories. Big numbers are by far the shortest route to being considered a hero these days.

I don't mean to pick on CU, or Billups, or even the Denver Nuggets (73 percent of whose players boast college degrees -- better than some newsrooms). You don't have to look long or far for plenty of other examples; indeed, you don't even have to look outside of Colorado. Two weeks ago, Ben Kelly, CU's swift cornerback and return man, announced that he would not be returning to Boulder for his senior year so that he could follow his bliss in the NFL. He has promised to pursue his college degree, but color me skeptical. When a young athlete shuffles his papers, the bachelor's degree always seems to end up under the million-dollar deal. Even though Billups suffered a season-ending shoulder injury several weeks ago, I haven't heard anything about his taking night courses in his spare time.

Every year, many of America's best institutions of higher learning go through a charade: They pretend to offer an education to young men -- and, increasingly, young women -- when the schools and these "student-athletes" are in truth conspiring only to field an athletic team, and preferably a winning one. You might point out that many college students nod off through their Milton lectures for less than honorable reasons. I don't know anyone who can't remember a fellow student who lapped up Scotch instead of Salinger, who preferred ultimate Frisbee to Fitzgerald, or who simply went through the motions because his parents expected it. (Given that George W. managed only Cs and left the shallowest of footprints at Yale, you have to wonder whether he would have been happier at Southeast Texas Ag and Tech Junior Teacher's College instead of stepping into dad's wide tracks.) Yet even despite the layabouts who take up space in every college classroom, the fact remains: Student-athletes at schools where big-stadium sports are treated as golden eggs graduate at a lower rate than their peers.

University administrators will protest that they have worked hard to haul such students up to the level of their less sweaty peers. And there has been progress. According to the NCAA's latest stats (which measured the class that entered school in 1992-93), 58 percent of student-athletes -- those students who earned some sort of athletic scholarship -- graduated within six years. That's about the same rate as their less athletic peers, maybe even a point or two higher.

But the numbers become much more revealing when they are broken out. What most administrators do not acknowledge is that the graduation rates of student-athletes from the country's best and biggest schools have for many years been inflated by women athletes, who have left school with degrees at a much higher rate than their male counterparts. For Division I football players, for instance, the nationwide graduation rate is about seven points lower than the student body as a whole. For male basketball players, the graduation rate is only 41 percent. Add race to the equation and the stats simply become embarrassing. Only 33 percent of black male basketball players who entered school in 1992 graduated by 1998. Black football players earned their degrees at a rate of only 42 percent. If there is a general rule, it appears that an inverse relationship exists between the amount of money a sport brings a university and the graduation rate of its athletes. (The NCAA's latest numbers show the graduation rate for women's basketball players, whose programs have soared in popularity in recent years, fell four points. The organization suggests that the numbers are "best viewed over the long term.")

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.

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.)

A couple of years ago, UCD agreed to become the "official educator" for a new basketball league. Called the National Rookie League, the Washington D.C.-based organization works like this: The NRL would, in effect, take over for the NCAA as the NBA's minor league. Kids with nothing but basketball on their minds would enter the league straight out of high school. A player would be permitted to stay until he was 24, at which point it would be time for him to start fishing in the NBA or cut bait and enter the real world. In exchange for their time and talents, the players would be paid. The compensation would come in the form of salary and expenses, plus an education stipend. Which is where UCD comes in.

During the basketball season, all the NRL players would be doing is playing ball. But in the off-season, they'd be given the opportunity to study a very fundamental college curriculum currently being developed by UCD. "We have experience in working with students at this level," says Martinez, "those who need help with the very basics." In other words, young, mostly black men with dreams of the NBA. The courses will include simple but ignored life skills such as money management, communications and interpersonal skills along with basic academic offerings.

The National Rookie League hopes to tip off its first games sometime this year. You may not agree with the priorities of young men whose only goal is to lace up high-tops and throw, dribble, and shoot a ball when they could be learning Shakespeare. But at least it's not fraud.

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