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.")