SIDELINE SLANTS

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JOE KLEINSASSER
March Madness, aka the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, did not disappoint. There were exciting games and more than a few surprises-although why are we surprised by annual surprises?

Now that the basketballs have stopped bouncing for another season, does anybody care how these highly skilled student-athletes are faring in the classroom? How many will earn a college degree?

Of the men’s basketball teams, 44 out of 65 (68 percent) failed to graduate at least 50 percent of their players in the last four years. Not only that, but four teams didn’t graduate a single player in the past four years.

That’s none. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

A Knight Commission study in 2001 offered a host of good ideas for reforming college athletics. One recommendation was that the NCAA reserve post-season tournament play for teams that graduate at least 50 percent of their players.

If those recommendations had been adopted, this year’s NCAA field would have been narrowed from 65 teams to 21 teams.

Knight Commission chairman William Friday said, “It is unconscionable that these schools will be rewarded financially for their tournament participation when they have failed at their primary mission.”

It’s no secret that the NCAA tournament is more than a game. An NCAA team makes $780,000 for each win in the tournament. That’s hardly chump change.

But far too many student-athletes are not making the grade in the classroom, unless their classroom resembles the infamous University of Georgia class taught several years ago.

Take the well-publicized test given to students by former Georgia University assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr. Here are just a few of the questions: “How many points is a 3-pointer worth? How many goals are on a basketball court? How many halves are in a college basketball game? How many officials referee a college basketball game? Diagram the half-court line.”

Basketball program documents released to the NCAA show that all of the Georgia University students in the “Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball” class were receiving an A. Given the test’s degree of difficulty, that’s not surprising.

I wonder if the same student-athletes found a history professor who asked similarly tough test questions, such as, “When was the war of 1812 fought? Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”

Universities are quick to trot out examples of model student-athletes. But with so many student-athletes failing to earn diplomas, one has to wonder if schools are selling their souls to be a top 20-team with a chance to win the Big Dance.

Competing for a national championship should be a thrill. But after the cheers fade away, one should ask, “What happens to the student-athletes after their college career ends?”

A few will succeed in professional basketball. Most, however, will have to find success in a more traditional line of work. A college diploma wouldn’t hurt.

Full-scholarship student-athletes are given a free ride to pursue a college education. Ultimately, they are responsible if they throw away that opportunity. But universities who use talented student-athletes to make millions aren’t innocent simply because they wash their hands of the whole mess.

During March Madness, upsets happen all the time. A much bigger upset will occur the day standards are adopted to penalize schools who win on the court, but allow their student-athletes to lose by failing to graduate.

* * *

Did you hear the one about the basketball coach who stormed into the university president’s office and demanded a raise right then and there?

“Please,” protested the college president, “you already make more than the entire history department.”

“Yeah, maybe so, but you don’t know what I have to put up with,” the coach blustered. “Look.” He went out into the hall and grabbed a jock who was jogging down the hallway. “Run over to my office and see if I’m there,” he ordered.

Twenty minutes later the jock returned, sweaty and out of breath.

“You’re not there, sir,” he reported.

“See what I mean,” said the coach, scratching his head. “I would have phoned.”

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