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Archive for Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Commentary: Hey, coaches: Players must graduate

December 7, 2005

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Richard Lapchick isn't about to start celebrating, because it's way too early. Too many college athletes still don't get their diplomas, particularly if they are black.

Still, there was something different this time - something even slightly upbeat - when Lapchick issued his usual gloom-and-doom numbers about the graduation rates of America's best college football teams.

You wouldn't know it by the numbers themselves. They tell the sad tale that 23 of the 56 teams playing in postseason bowls likely won't graduate even half their players.

Just as troubling is that race remains a factor when it comes to who receives a sheepskin. White players are far more likely to get a degree than blacks at most schools for reasons that have never been fully explained.

Lapchick has been studying these numbers for the better part of a decade now as part of his job as director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. His mission is to draw attention to the issues, and search for ways to solve them.

He's done a pretty good job with the attention part, largely by using the NCAA's own numbers to highlight the fact that coaches generally do a crummy job when it comes to making sure athletes who will never make a dime as a pro at least have an education to fall back on.

Just this spring, he pointed out that 42 of the 65 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament didn't graduate half their players. Two universities - LSU and Minnesota - somehow managed not to graduate an incoming basketball freshman in 10 years.

Solving the graduation issue has proven a lot trickier. For more years than Lapchick would want to count, coaches could grind through players without worrying much about what happened in the classroom.

Sure, they had to keep athletes eligible. But there were (wink, wink) special classes to make sure that happened.

At Georgia a few years ago, for example, assistant basketball coach Jim Harrick Jr. taught a class called Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball.

The final exam - make that the only exam - consisted of 20 questions that tested the student's knowledge of, what else, basketball. Among the tougher questions were:

How many halves are in a college basketball game? How many points does a three-point field goal account for in a basketball game?

Keeping players eligible, of course, has always been in a coach's best interest. That's why players are coddled by academic advisers and often shuffled into the easiest classes on campus. Graduating them is another matter because, at many schools, it never mattered to anyone.

That's all changing now because the NCAA finally has taken a stand. The latest figures show plenty of room for improvement. Southern California may be the best college football team in the country, but the Trojans aren't as dominant in the classroom. They scored 910 on the NCAA index for football, below the 925 minimum figure to avoid sanctions next year.

The four other Pac-10 bowl teams also failed to get to 925, as did Ohio State among the BCS teams.

The free ride is about over. The numbers next year will either be better, or the rosters will definitely be smaller.

That's a concept even football coaches can easily understand.

And that might help put some of the college part back into college sports.

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