Athletes shouldn’t drop — the ball

NCAA President Myles Brand has long advocated tying athletic scholarships to graduation rates. But this past week, the collegiate athletics governing body moved one step closer to penalizing schools whose labs have more graduated cylinders than their teams have graduated seniors and for whom “leaving early” refers not to cutting out of boring lectures, but to forsaking commencement in favor of the potential wealth, fame and glory of professional sports.

If the NCAA passes its academic reform proposal, teams will lose the opportunity to recruit scholarship athletes if team members decide to leave school while in poor academic standing. The penalty could be circumvented if the school has shown a sufficient “academic progress rate.” In effect, the proposal would tie scholarships to graduation rates and an elusive “academic progress” criterion.

According to information produced last year, 10 of men’s basketball’s Sweet 16 teams failed to graduate more than half their players within a six-year span. Oklahoma took the cake with a mind-bogglingly whopping graduation rate of zero. Sooners coach Kelvin Sampson’s attempts to defend his program’s record were emptier than the diploma frames in his players’ houses.

According to recent studies, the new academic reform proposal would penalize approximately 10 percent of Division I teams and leave them without the ability to recruit their full allotment of scholarship players.

More and more, major college basketball coaches have come to realize that their prized recruits plan to make only slightly more than a pit stop in the NCAA before jumping to the next level. Jim Boeheim at Syracuse was the most prominent recent coach to effectively sell his purist soul when he loaned Carmelo Anthony for a year and consequently won his first national championship.

But Boeheim is far from alone. College basketball coaches are faced with a difficult balancing act when they have to choose between building a program for the long haul (with players that have borderline or no legitimate NBA prospects) or going for the jugular while facing a rebuilding/reloading process nearly every year as their best players leave.

Different coaches have made different choices. John Calipari recruited Dajuan Wagner to help boost the Memphis program in his second year as coach, knowing the star player would merely be a one-year rental. The success — the NIT championship — and exposure of Wagner’s presence in Memphis helped reenergize the program under Calipari.

For years, Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke programs were emblematic of all that was right with college sports. It was taken as gospel that no player would leave a renowned private institution early. Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and others won national championships, and all earned their degrees. That all changed after the 1998-1999 season, when then-sophomore William Avery and then-freshman Corey Maggette pulled the unprecedented move of skipping out on Coach K. Three years later, Jason Williams and Carlos Boozer left the program early as well. But the two of them had arranged to earn their degrees after their junior campaigns, thus starting a new trend, and a highly suspect one at that. Come on — Duke? In three years? Ah — Dean Brodhead — while you’re still here, can you modify our academic review to include the better features of the academic slate at your future home? Thanks!

So about the proposal. Will this actually help? Will college coaches still recruit one-year wonders on the pain of future sanctions, or will they just say “forget it” and let the players waltz straight from high school into the NBA?

For years, people have argued that players who stayed in college for four years were better prepared for the professional game thanks to the tutelage of their college mentors. But besides Tim Duncan, which of today’s big stars validate that claim? The four-year college stud is a relic at this point. It’s likely that some college coaches will be desperate enough to make a big splash that they would still take on one-year commitments on the pain of penalties down the road. But the policy might deter some of the more established coaches.

Some argue that NCAA regulations allow this problem to perpetuate. These people say less mandated practice and travel time and higher standards for obtaining scholarships would make graduation issues less prevalent. This line of thinking seems to coincide with the thinking of Ivy League presidents, who, despite scholarships not even being at issue, have decreased the number of teams’ accepted practice dates and increased admissions standards in what appears to be a wholesale de-emphasis of Ivy athletics.

The Ivy League is rarely threatened by players leaving school early, scholarships are not at stake, and the questionable emphasis on “academic progress” would probably have little bearing here as well. So how would such a proposal benefit the Ivies? Stretching my imagination as far as possible, I could hazard a guess that increasing the focus on academic life in order to gain admission into any Division I school might, eventually, lead to an overall increase in academic ability that could, potentially, lead, theoretically, to better athletes, conceivably, bringing the Ivy League onto their radar screens. Maybe. Doubtful.

More reasonably, it would be nice if the NCAA gave some substantive advantage to teams that already meet the enhanced requirements and will derive no added benefit (in terms of maintaining scholarships) from adhering to the new guidelines. How about financial incentives? If direct payment is out of the question, how about being guaranteed home games against big name scholarship programs that do not meet the requirements?

Oklahoma at Yale. Imagine the possibilities. James Jones can give Sampson a crash course in commencement. Yale would get the publicity — and the finances from attendance and possibly television — from a home game against a high-profile team. And recruits who were wavering between the grandeur of the Big 12 and the quaintness of the Ivy League would have their choices on display. And if the NCAA institutes its new policy, it’s likely that either way those players would have a shiny diploma on display.

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