Monday, April 2, 2012

Where Are the 'Students' Among the 'Student Athletes'?

Kentucky's John Calipari: The wizard of 'one and done'
As we look toward tonight's NCAA championship basketball game between two of the marquee names in the sport--Kentucky and Kansas--it is a good time to see what this is all about. We find it is about making a lot of money playing basketball. It is not about college and it most certainly is not about students who can read and write.

The NCAA and the member schools will tell you that their "student ath-a-leets" have a higher graduation rate than the student body as a whole ande will play for the honor of their respective universities on the hardwood. Detractors will point out that the graduation rate for athletes--especially for black males--at the upper end of Division I universities is 33 percent below that of the general population. The hype about high graduation rates you see in the commercials is just so much bullshit.

Those detractors will point to the University of Kentucky's graduation rate, one of the worst in the Southeastern Conference (hardly known an Ivy League-type collection of schools), brings in several basketball players per season for one year or two years in some cases. Six of Kentucky's top seven players--who have lost just once this year--are freshmen or sophomores and few of them are expected to return. In the past six years, 40 freshmen have been drafted by the NBA and eight of them played for Calapari. He also had sophomores drafted during that period.

To Calipari's lasting credit, he pretends nothing wholesome in this. He's following the rules, which he says he hates, and recruiting these players, which almost everyone wants, better than they are.

These superstars are recruited as one-year players by a coach who knows the NBA is foremost in their minds, but they are not eligible until after their freshman seasons. The contracts for these teenagers range in the millions of dollars.

Coaches rake it in, too. Kentucky's John Calipari earns $4.5 million a year (one wag broke that down to $3,000 a minute of coaching) and Rick Pitino of Louisville, which Kentucky beat in the semifinal Sunday, has a contract worth $7.5 million a year (the Kentucky fans are not happy about that).

Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida does a graduation rate study (here) of the NCAA's men's and women's tournament teams every year . This year's study shows that Xavier University, which is best among the men's final 16 (93 percent) would have finished in a tie for 10th among the women's entrants, nine of which graduated all their students in the allotted time. That's a 100 percent rate. Two of the top women coaches, Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee and Gino Auremma of Connecticut, have career graduation averages near 100 percent.

Women are not recruited as potential "one and done" WNBA prospects because the money--that word again--is not much better in women's pro basketball than it is in, say, engineering or medicine for a recent college graduate with a good transcript.

The major difference isn't that women are smarter (as some would have you believe), but that there is money to be made by one team (men's) and not so much in the other, so coaches bring in ringers, kids with no chance of graduation but with considerable basketball skill. Some go to the pros, others just drift off somewhere else never to be heard from again. Many will argue that being in college "can't hurt" these athletes, but I will submit that it certainly can hurt the notion of amateurism, fair wages (players get scholarships valued in the thousands of dollars while their universities make millions on the sport), and even fair play. The Ivy League and the Patriot League send teams to the NCAA tournaments, but don't give athletic scholarships.

As you watch these "long" men sweat and toil tonight, take note of the great ones. They won't be back. Many of the others won't graduate, but they'll have their moment in the spotlight. That'll have to be enough.

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