Marshall: NCAA Academic Rules Need Work

Columnist Phillip Marshall is not impressed with today's academic rules for collegiate athletes.

It is my favorite Wimp Sanderson quote, from his days as Alabama's basketball coach.

Asked how many of his players would graduate, his response was "All that want to." That, of course, is not enough for NCAA president Myles Brand and his pals in their ongoing "academic reform" efforts in college athletics.

Their latest target is the prep schools that allow would-be college athletes to raise their grades or prep scores in the year after high school graduation without losing any college eligibility. For some reason, it has been decided that is a bad thing.

They've already made sure that high school athletes' fierce dedication to studying for hours every day isn't interrupted by nasty old text messages from college coaches. I wonder sometime if any of these people have ever had teen-agers in their homes.

My impression of Brand and friends is that they want to make college athletics a nice, extracurricular activity that is for educational purposes. And, oh, by the way, they want to continue to be able to sell television rights to the NCAA basketball tournament for a billion dollars so they can keep receiving salaries fit for a king.

The truth is that football and men's basketball, the college sports that are of interest to most people and the only ones that bring in significant money, are played at the highest level mostly by athletes from poor families, many of them with shaky academic backgrounds. There's a good chance that if you are a doctor's son with no money issues, you aren't going to be willing to pay the price in sweat and blood that it takes to be a big-time college athlete.

A lot of those who play college sports wouldn't qualify to get into the schools for which they play if they couldn't run fast and jump high. Those schools are morally obligated to make sure those athletes get the help they need to give them opportunities to succeed academically. And they do. Multimillion-dollar academic centers are sprouting like weeds. Tutors are available any time of day or night.

But there are always going to be some athletes who do just enough to stay eligible. Some are going to flunk out. Some are going to leave without getting their degrees.

Pardon me if I don't see that as a tragedy or even as a major issue.

Close to half of the students in the freshman class that arrives at Auburn in the fall will not graduate. The incoming class of freshman athletes will probably graduate at a higher rate than their counterparts who aren't athletes.

The difference is that few will notice or care if your child or mine flunks out of school. No one cares if your son majors in sociology or in chemical engineering.

Caught in the middle of all this are college coaches. They get fired if they don't win. Yet, more than any officials on any college campus, they are held responsible for the academic performance of those under their supervision.

The list of college athletes who arrived with poor academic backgrounds and left with valuable degrees is a long one. Former Auburn basketball star Marquis Daniels certainly wouldn't have qualified for admission to Auburn without his athletic ability. Under the coming guidelines, he would have had to go to junior college instead of prep school.

He graduated in 3 1/2 years.

The idea that college athletes can be just like other college students simply won't fly. No other college students, not even those who must work to make ends meet, face the kinds of demands on their time and the physical and mental demands that athletes face.

Certainly, athletes should be legitimate students, but there are better ways to get that done than the system in place today. Making academic rules that apply equally to exclusive private schools and state universities is a challenge, to be sure.

How about this?

Schools could admit whoever they wanted, according to their own admission standards. In order to be eligible in his second year, an athlete would have to be a legitimate academic sophomore. In order to be eligible his third year, he would have to be a legitimate academic junior. And so on.

That would be simple. And the NCAA powers-that-be aren't interested in simple.

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