Asked if he had earned a degree while playing basketball at Clemson University, former NBA player Elden Campbell replied, "No, but they gave me one anyway." That was in 1991. At the 2010 NCAA Convention in January, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the continuing contradiction between playing big-time college basketball and football and getting an education. Duncan proposed restoring freshman ineligibility and disqualifying from postseason competition teams with a graduation rate of less than 40 percent.
Freshman ineligibility would be a major step in the right direction. Disqualifying teams with lousy graduation records looks good, too—on paper, not in practice.
The NBA requires players to be 19 and one year out of high school before they become eligible for the draft, giving rise to "one and done": athletes who play one season in college, often leaving after just one semester. Of course, schools gladly accept these basketball prodigies. This is strictly a business arrangement: a showcase for the player to improve his game in exchange for his athletic and marketing services (at virtually no cost). If this perverts the mission of the NCAA and its members, there's a fix: Do not admit these athletes.
Freshman ineligibility rules require an athlete to maintain good academic standing for at least three semesters to be eligible to play for one season. This would weed out players who have no interest in academics.
On a more positive note, it would help lay the foundation for academic success. The first year in college—a difficult adjustment period for many—is a critical time to develop skills and habits necessary to perform academic work that leads to graduation. Freshmen need to go to class and have time to study, not fly around the country to away games. As Duncan, who played basketball at Harvard, put it, "Let them take real classes. Let them maintain a GPA. Let them get a sense of the college community."
Disqualifying teams with poor graduation rates, on the other hand, would penalize current players for failures of former players. And if the aim is to put athletes in class and improve graduation rates, why limit it to March Madness? Why not play fewer regular-season games so student athletes miss less class time?
Unfortunately, Duncan's prescription does not address the root cause of the graduation problem: There is no way to turn back the clock to the NCAA's stated ideal of "amateurism" in big-time college sports. Duncan referred to the more than 410,000 student athletes who participate in NCAA championship sports. On average, these athletes graduate at a higher rate than the general student population, and the vast majority, as the NCAA reminds us in March Madness ads, "go pro in something other than their sport."
The NCAA's incessant references to 410,000 athletes obscure the problem. Few think we need to reform lacrosse, field hockey, or other sports in which there is no economic incentive to have "student athletes" who are not really students. Just 13,000 (3 percent) of the 410,000 athletes support the NCAA and its member conferences and colleges through billions of dollars in TV revenue through major football and basketball programs. Even among that 3 percent, it's the much smaller number with NBA or NFL potential who galvanize the fans.
Duncan blamed the low graduation rate among the 3 percent on "a small minority of renegade coaches and institutions." However, when we focus on the 13,000 revenue-producing college athletes rather than 410,000 total student athletes, the proportion of "renegades" is significantly higher.
Of course, a relatively small number of players don't graduate because they leave early to play professionally. From their point of view, it's an excellent trade-off. They can always go back to complete their education, and then they won't need financial aid or be distracted by endless hours of practice. Unfortunately, a far larger number neither graduate nor make it to the NBA or NFL. What is the best way to serve their interests?
The NCAA defines an "amateur" student athlete as someone who "engages in a particular sport for the educational, physical, mental, and social benefits derived therefrom and to whom participation in that sport is an avocation." "Avocations" don't produce multimillion-dollar salaries for coaches and multibillion-dollar TV contracts. The economic incentives to attract superstars and keep them eligible are so strong that no minor reforms and no amount of policing will prevent athletic directors, coaches, and athletes from gaming the system.
It's time to give up the pretense. Compensate college athletes in revenue-producing sports for their work, beyond the scholarships most receive. If schools don't pay athletes, others will. They are called boosters and sports agents. Give athletes the right to market their own names and images, a right now monopolized by the NCAA and its member institutions.
The NCAA clings to "amateurism" despite the impossibility of combining amateurism with the generation of billions of dollars of revenue. Amateurism was once the Olympic ideal as well. Yet we just saw a match for the gold medal in hockey with both teams composed entirely of NHL players. The Olympic rings did not catch fire and dissolve into ashes.
It's time to admit that big-time college basketball and football are professional—the equivalent of Major League Baseball's minor leagues—and treat players accordingly. Yes, there will be problems, such as workers' compensation, health insurance, and monopoly questions. But these problems have solutions. Maintaining the fiction that these athletes are amateurs, however, is impossible.
Read why the NCAA's academic charade cheapen March Madness, by Ben Miller, policy analyst at Education Sector.