As March Madness winds down, and college basketball crowns a new national champion tomorrow night, it's a sure bet that those who will be glued to the tube watching the NCAA's title game are not the least bit concerned with the academic prowess of the players on the court.
What matters to college fans and alumni is not the grade point average of their favorite player, but how well he shoots three-pointers, pulls up for outside jump shots, steals rebounds, cuts to the basket, drives the lane, and slam dunks better than the opposition. Academic achievement never even registers with audiences cheering teams showcasing the best college players in the land.
Unfortunately, that is and has long been the prevailing attitude toward popular college sports fashioned with fans, alumni, and funding in mind. A winning team brings prestige and powerful financial support to institutions of higher education that depend on the monetary infusion their legendary basketball or football programs deliver.
So when the National Collegiate Athletic Association reports appallingly low graduation rates of athletes based on a six-year plan to earn a degree, the news makes a ripple, not a roar. We get the customary hand-wringing over the dismal statistics: the latest that show two out of three college basketball players never graduate.
Fewer than half of college football players earn a degree too, but nobody is calling time out on the field. The games are too important to schools quick to protest perceptions that academic affairs are second to athletics.
To be fair, many universities work diligently to provide academic support services to their athletes through graduate assistants, counselors, and study tutors, and the efforts are paying off. The University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University both boast higher graduation rates than the NCAA national averages. And graduation rates are also better among women student-athletes.
But the resounding message that permeates the highly competitive and financially rewarding world of college sports is that a team's success matters more than individual academic success. It's understood that team practice and play sometimes take precedence over struggles with studies.
Many student-athletes never achieve a balance between school work and team demands. When their usefulness to the team ends, they leave campus no better than when they arrived with visions of playing for the pros dancing in their heads.
Most fall short of that dream after years of playing at the bottom of their class. They may leave with a championship ring, multiple player awards, and a scrapbook of clippings from their college glory years.
But that and a dollar will get them a cup of coffee today. Parity between college athletics and academics must be more than wishful thinking. It must be a non-negotiable commitment. If Notre Dame can do it with a rigid selection process of student-athletes married to high expectations of academic success for its football and basketball players, so can other schools.
But they won't be pressured to do the right thing by diehard football or basketball fans. Those cheering from the sidelines could not care less about NCAA graduation rates.
However, it should be incumbent on the universities who benefit greatly from their student players to give them, as BGSU's President Sidney Ribeau says, “... the best opportunity to make something out of their lives.” Graduating with a college degree is a good way to begin life after college sports.