College and Reality


BILL BRADLEY, an All-American basketball player at Princeton, went on to become a Rhodes scholar. After leading the New York Knicks basketball team to a world championship a few years later, he has moved on to a highly successful political career as a U.S. Senator.

Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), a former college and professional football player and Pat Haden, Rhodes scholar and a former professional quarterback, are tow others who have made a mark both on and off the playing field.

But success stories like Bradley's, Kemp's or Haden's areas rare as they are fascinating. The vast majority of college football and basketball players today are not going to become senators or doctors or lawyers.

While many athletes want to and can put a college education to use, many do not. For some reason, however, vast numbers of college administrators, athletic officials and the public at large adamantly presume that pre-professional football and basketball players in particular must enroll and "make substantial progress" in a formal four-year university degree program before they are eligible for the big leagues. Unless basketball or football players go the traditional university route, the door to a sports career is quickly slammed shut.

RARELY, HOWEVER, do the administrators step back and examine the fairness of that principle. Four years of college academics are surely not a pre-requisite to shoot lay-ups or catch touchdown passes. More importantly, college is not a pre-requisite for success in any number of other non-athletic fields. But, insist the defenders of the the present intercollegiate sports regime, football and basketball stars must also demonstrate aptitude and dedicating for college-level academics--even though those standards aren't impressed on businessmen or bakers.

The renaissance ideal imposed upon nearly 100 percent of pre-professional football and basketball players is one that less than 30 percent of the general population of high school graduates will choose.

So why hold athletes to such an abnormal standard? Because of a public desire to form them into some ideal mold? Because universities find football and basketball programs too financially lucrative to risk tampering with?

NOT ONLY IS enrollment now a necessity, but officials are applying increasingly more pressure on college athletes once they get to school. The best example is the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Rule 48, which will require would-be freshman athletes to score at least 700 on their SATs and successfully complete a specifies array of pre-college courses. AT the heart of the issue is the colleges' aim--which is fair--to guard against erosion of academic standards.

Rule 48, nonetheless, may still be unfair, namely because the arbitrary use of SAT scores can kill a football or basketball career before it even starts--while for those with talents in other sports, there are tremendous opportunities in such as baseball, tennis, golf, and hockey. Those don't require a diploma.

So what can be done? Changing people's attitudes will take time, prodding and at least some intervention, yet the goal should be first to lay to rest the idea that academic success is a prerequisite for athletic success. Once that is taken care of, the path will be played to open up pre-professional football and basketball training--like minor leagues--in areas outside the college campus.

The greatest hurdle, however, will be convincing the colleges themselves, as hey will surely resent the unhappy prospect of losing vast revenues from ticket sales, television contracts and alumni athletic support.

At the same time, however, athletes will be free to chose between athletics, academics, or both. And colleges will not face the common ritual of bending rules and lowering academic standards to field the top 22 football players.

Athletics is no longer a narrowly defined business, and the "scholar-athlete" ideal is a glorious but outdated concept. Once that's realized, regulations like the four-year college-football rule and Rule 48 will be reduced to a non-controversy.

Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp didn't get where they are today because they went to college. Surely it may have helped, but they had something else, something we al appears. At the same time, however, we should not impose unrealistic expectations and requirements on people who are simply, and very happily, just plain athletes.