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Randy Harvey

Time to Push Schools Toward Making the Grade

March 27, 2003|Randy Harvey

The first coach I heard recommend sanctions be imposed on universities that weren't requiring students-athletes to be students was Bob Knight when he was at Indiana.

Now we have NCAA President Myles Brand, the former Indiana University president who fired Knight for reasons unrelated to his ideas on academia's place in the locker room, advancing such a proposal.

Brand's plan, unveiled in broad terms at the NCAA Convention in Anaheim in January, would reward athletic programs that have high graduation rates and punish those that don't.

For instance, in college basketball, programs that meet certain standards might receive additional scholarships, a larger share of NCAA television revenue and extra consideration when tournament teams are selected and seeded. Programs that fall short wouldn't. They might even lose scholarships.

I choose college basketball as an example for a reason. Although more Division I athletes are receiving college diplomas than before, Brand is not satisfied with the numbers, and he is particularly not satisfied with the numbers in college basketball. In the most recent reporting period, 36% of Division I college basketball players were credited with graduating.

This is an issue now because of a study released this week by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida on the graduation rates of teams in the NCAA tournament.

Dr. Richard Lapchick, the institute's director, called the situation, especially in regard to black basketball players who graduate at a significantly lower rate than other athletes, a "nightmare waiting to be fixed."

The study used the NCAA formula for determining graduation rates, choosing four freshman classes (from 1992 through 1995 in this case), giving them six years to complete their degrees and compiling a four-year average.

Among the most interesting revelations is that the graduation rate at Indiana was 25%.

Guess who was the coach and who was the president at the university during that period?

I point this out not to suggest that Knight and Brand are hypocritical for contributing to the problem they want fixed. It is more to emphasize the complexity of the problem, especially when it comes to interpreting the numbers and distinguishing the righteous from the rest.

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First the good news: The graduation numbers for most basketball programs were so low that virtually all the players can count up to them.

Look at the top-seeded teams.

Texas: 38%.

Kentucky: 33%.

Arizona: 15%.

Oklahoma: 0%.

But, as the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. The high numbers might reflect how committed universities such as Stanford (100%), Butler (86%), Notre Dame (75%) and Duke (73%) are to educating athletes, but the low numbers at other schools do not necessarily mean they are less concerned about their athletes' welfare.

Oklahoma recognized that it was going to be scrutinized even before Lapchick's study was released and included a passage in its postseason media guide under the heading, "OU's Graduation Rate Misleading."

That is true for most universities because the NCAA counts only athletes who entered a university as freshmen and graduated from that same university in six years. It doesn't include athletes who take longer than six years to graduate; it doesn't include junior college transfers even if they eventually graduate; it doesn't include athletes who transfer to another university even if they were in good academic standing when they left.

Mike Houck, an Oklahoma spokesman, pointed out this week that two freshman basketball players enrolled at the university in 1995. One transferred to Boston College and graduated. The other left school temporarily because of family pressures but returned to graduate in 6 1/2 years.

"According to the NCAA, our graduation rate for that class is zero," Houck said. "At Oklahoma, we consider it 100%."

The NCAA also counts it against a school if a player leaves early for the NBA and doesn't return within the six-year limit to graduate.

"If a kid leaves our institution before graduating but is earning a couple of million dollars or three in his chosen profession, maybe we're doing something right," said Bill Morgan, Arizona's academic compliance officer.

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This does not necessarily mean Lapchick is wrong in his assessment. The exploitation of basketball players who are not receiving the educations they were promised is a nightmare, as exposed most recently in academic scandals at Fresno State, Georgia and St. Bonaventure. Anyone who believes the fraud is confined to those three programs is naive.

But, and Brand would be the first to agree, there must be a fair method of calculating graduation rates, one that deals in reality.

Then, when the NCAA has identified universities that truly make a mockery of the term student-athlete, they should be dealt with harshly.

Brand should encourage his former colleagues, college presidents, to accept responsibility. The next president at a big-time school who fires a winning coach because his players aren't graduating will be the first.

Beyond that, academic records should be factored into RPI numbers that influence the NCAA tournament committee. If a coach doesn't get into the tournament or has to accept a lower seeding because his team's graduation rates are substandard, you can bet he soon will be supervising study halls.

Better yet, teams with a majority of players who can explain the RPI should receive automatic bids.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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