Awful grad rates cry out for NCAA to change

The graduation numbers released recently by the NCAA for the young men who played basketball on scholarships at UConn during much of the current century can best be described as disgraceful because they mock the purpose of a university.

But we can expect them to get better for two reasons: the new coach and athletic director are working on it and the graduation rate can't get much worse.

While they're at it, Athletic Director Warde Manuel and major sports coaches should also look into allegations of special treatment for players in domestic abuse cases raised by UConn women at the same time those scores came out.

UConn scored an 8 percent graduation success rate for scholarship players who entered the university between 2003 and 2006, as compared with a national graduation rate of 74 percent for those who played the game at other colleges. This puts UConn just under such stellar academic institutions as Arkansas-Fayetteville and Chicago State, which had a 10 percent graduation rate and only ahead of last place Centenary College of Louisiana, which had graduated no basketball players. Only a dozen scholarship holders were counted because others transferred out or were walk-ons and not counted. One graduated.

This happened while the very successful UConn women's basketball team was graduating 92 percent of its players and the football team had a respectable graduation rate of 65 percent.

Apologists will argue this is ancient history and point to the team's recent efforts, which have shown the dreadful performance has gotten the administration's attention. Athletic Director Manuel, who came to the university last year, and Coach Kevin Ollie, who graduated in four years in the 1990s, seem to pay attention to schoolwork. Manuel points out the report last week is "based on incoming students from six to 10 years ago" and predicts recent academic progress reports will soon be reflected in vastly improved graduation success rates.

True enough, but the students whose failure after entering the university between 2003 and 2006 were and still are given six years, not four, to graduate, which means they go all the way back to the not so dim past that was 2012.

Thanks to the sports nobody watches, UConn's overall graduation rate indicates the dubious term student-athlete can be applied to most members of the university's other teams. The rate for all sports was a very nice 80 percent, with the women's basketball team nearly perfect and six lesser sports graduating all of their players.

But even in basketball, which would appear to have the most questionable admissions standards of all the major sports, Central Connecticut managed an 86 percent graduation rate and the University of Hartford had 78 percent, while UConn was pulling off its 8.

Records like Arkansas-Fayetteville's, Chicago State's and sadly, UConn's, make the argument for ending the hypocrisy and turning big-time sports like men's basketball into the professional sport they already are.

Since the colleges don't really educate these non-student-athletes, the argument goes, they should at least reimburse them for their contributions to the institution's prosperity. Isn't it bad enough, critics ask, that the universities pay their coaches obscenely high salaries without the added embarrassment of providing scholarships that don't even cover all the costs of going to college? It isn't as if the football or basketball player can attend classes, study, practice and wait on tables too.

It has been suggested by New York Times columnist and college sports critic Joe Nocera and others that the major football and basketball schools like Kentucky, Michigan, Notre Dame and yes, UConn, be designated a superleague, whose teams would openly serve as minor leagues for pro football and basketball. The players would be paid. Those who wished could get an education. It might be embarrassing at first, but the colleges asked for it - and it would be honest.

These large sports colleges, as they are now, have been likened to plantations, a description first made, not by a journalist, but by Walter Byers, the first, long-serving head of college sports's governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. It was a conclusion he came to after long years of watching what had been a student activity become a big business. His way with words - the plantation remark - hastened his departure from the NCAA after nearly 40 years.

Rather ironic, considering Byers also coined the term, "student-athlete" - in happier times.


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