The people who run college athletics took time off the other day from counting the millions of dollars top athletes make for their schools to pat themselves on the back because more athletes are actually going to class.
Not only are they going to class, but they're getting degrees. At least that's what the NCAA's latest report on athlete academics suggests, though even a college degree might not be enough to decipher the maze of numbers and graphs the organization put out to back up its contention that the term student-athlete is not an oxymoron.
Simply put, the graduation rate for athletes in most sports is rising, thanks mostly to a program that penalizes schools if they don't graduate a minimum of six out of 10 athletes in every sport. Apparently the threat of lost scholarships and bans on postseason play has prompted new interest among coaches in making sure their players open books.
NCAA president Myles Brand trumpeted the new Academic Progress Report figures as evidence of just that. He noted that scores are up in 26 of 29 sports since the program began four years ago, and that schools have been especially good at upping graduation rates for baseball and football players.
But the figures show that not all sports are created equal when it comes to academics.
If you want your son to get a degree, put a foil in his hand when he's young because more fencers graduate than other male athletes. If you have a daughter, give her an oar since rowers are at the top of the female athlete graduation list.
Don't give them basketballs, because a male basketball player is the least likely of any athlete to graduate. Women basketball players aren't much better, trailing only bowlers at the bottom of graduation lists.
Brand acknowledged that basketball remains the one sport where efforts to improve academics haven't had much effect.
The NCAA is so concerned that it has appointed a special panel to find out why basketball players aren't graduating.
One reason may be that there aren't enough good instructors to go around. Schools facing sanctions might think about putting someone like Jim Harrick Jr. in front of a class of eager student-athletes to solve their graduation problems.
It was Harrick who taught a class called "Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball" while his father was the coach at the University of Georgia in 2001. Three players on the Georgia team got A's in the class, but only after acing a final exam that included the questions:
¢ How many points does a three-point field goal account for in basketball?
¢ How many halves are in a college basketball game?
Instead of focusing on graduation rates, the NCAA might want to take a look at what kind of classes athletes sign up for and who helps them outside the classroom. How much good does a general studies degree do an athlete, especially if he or she is helped along the way by instructors friendly to the athletic department?
Shocking as it may seem, not every athlete enters college looking for an education. To many, going to class is nothing more than a necessary evil so they can play ball and, hopefully, one day play ball for money.
That's not going to change just because a few more of them might be getting degrees.