Blowing The Whistle

Illuminate college basketball’s dark side

Over spring break, I watched the Louisiana State University (LSU) men’s basketball team dismantle the University of Texas in overtime to advance to the NCAA tournament Final Four. During the post-game interview, the euphoric LSU head coach, John Brady, gushed into the microphone about how his excellent group of guys had worked so hard and deserved the victory. But what student athletes really deserve is a future, and a successful life after college basketball glory begins with a diploma.

Unfortunately, the players at universities that qualified for the tournament are failing to graduate at an alarming rate. For instance, 16 of the men’s teams this year graduated less than 40 percent of their athletes, according to a study conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. The Institute examined the graduation rates for the four classes that entered Division I universities from 1995 to 1998—the latest years with available data.

The numbers reveal that only 41 out of the 64 teams (the University of Pennsylvania, which does not release its graduation rates, was not included) manage to shepherd at least 50 percent of their students to a college degree. A racial gap is also apparent. Thirty-eight teams saw 70 percent of their white players graduate compared to just 21 teams for black students, the study found.

Most of us will agree that these figures are underwhelming and distressing. But throughout the month-long tournament, no one really seemed worried that so many athletes were not graduating. Not the coaches, who were too worried about winning games, and not the media pundits, who were too busy analyzing games. And bracket-fevered fans certainly did not give a damn about the students’ studies as long as the right teams kept advancing. The study findings were duly reported in mid-March and then promptly forgotten.

This collective silence—and this tacit acceptance of the status quo—is unacceptable. Sure, these struggling students may now feel great qualifying for the tournament, but a few years down the road, nobody will remember which teams competed last month. More to the point, nobody will care.

Even premier players on powerhouse teams face an uphill struggle to make it. Some analysts doubt whether the Associated Press National Player of the Year, Duke’s J.J. Redick, will even amount to anything in the NBA.

So almost all college basketball players are looking at futures in the regular workforce. And in the real world, employers care about skills and knowledge, not whether an applicant played in the Sweet Sixteen.

Coaches and television sports analysts, who invaded 23.1 million households during last year’s tournament according to Nielsen, have a unique opportunity and obligation to flag this lingering problem and attract broad public interest. They must speak out because, in the month of March, the public is listening, eagerly lapping up the madness.

But tragically, there is no incentive to blow the whistle. Not for sports pundits, who make a living churning out three or four articles each round—none touching upon the graduation problem. And certainly not for coaches like LSU’s John Brady, who immediately cashed in on his players’ Final Four run to publicly demand a higher salary. Apparently $715,000 per year is not enough. (Meanwhile, the students who fail to graduate can look forward to a median annual income of $37,883).

Our fleeting entertainment is hardly worth sacrificing student athletes’ futures. My biggest hope is that next year, when I am fanatically watching the tournament, I will hear coaches and pundits earnestly discussing the low graduation rates and possible solutions. It is time they finally took the first step.

David Zhou ’07, a Crimson associate arts chair, is a government concentrator in Adams House.

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