Educating for Democracy: Collegiate Sports and March Madness

The recent scandal involving Syracuse University's basketball team came as a personal
disappointment to me since I've followed Syracuse varsity sports for almost 40 years in upstate New York. It is an area where Syracuse University sports are the high-profile collegiate event. I taught at SUNY, Cortland which has an outstanding Division Three sports program. But though a loyal follower of the Red Dragons of Cortland, I could also cheer for the Syracuse Orange on television and at "The Dome" and enjoyed watching them in the National Tournament almost every March.

I have highly regarded Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim from the time he first coached the team in the 1970's and became one of the winningest coaches in Division 1 basketball. I always admired him for his intelligence, resourcefulness and low-key style. With remarkable consistency he produced winning teams even at times when there were few outstanding players for him to work with. His teams won a national championship and came within a minute of winning a second.

But the recent revelations about SU infractions cited by the NCAA don't really surprise me although I am disappointed that Boeheim's reputation is now tarnished. Having been a faculty member at a Division lll school, I realized over the years how difficult it was for most any students of average ability to put in the necessary hours of practice and still keep up with their studies.

At SUNY, Cortland, with a highly desirable and selective physical education program and other specialties in that area of study, I found that many of the students who were PE majors and took my courses in the English department were highly motivated, conscientious and dedicated to their studies. I have always been proud of the selective recruitment of SUNY, Cortland athletes who had what it took to be both successful on the field and in the classroom and who were not lured by a scholarship since as a Division lll team, the school has none to offer.

However, Division III varsity sports do not make as many demands as are required from athletes on Division I teams. These include the time away from class for the road trips to other parts of the country as well as the pressures of tournament play that conclude with March Madness. Therefore it seems to me more than remarkable that Division I athletes are able to do the required work of a college-level course of study and keep with their scholastic obligations considering that I knew how hard it was for my own students to do so.

Therefore, when the revelations about the Syracuse basketball program came out, I was not too surprised since over the years I had heard and read about a number of Division l scandals, some of a trivial nature, others serious violations. What baffles me is that not more Division I schools are cited for infractions because, I believe, that to do college-level work is a full-time endeavor and the demands of Division I sports can be another full-time occupation. And although there have been brilliant athletes who were also outstanding in their studies such as Roger Staubach and Bill Bradley, I do not understand how two full-time obligations can be successfully pursued at the same time.

I know that it can be done, even at Division III, with a great deal of difficulty but students who are admitted to sports programs for their athletic skills are not necessarily able to do college-level work. Therefore the eighty percent graduation rate of Division I athletes as claimed by the NCAA deserves scrutiny. Recently the College Sport Research Institute has done such a study.

"CSRI reports focused on the two most prominent college sports point out [one] way in which numbers released by the NCAA are favorably skewed. 'They aggregate all athletes together,' Richard Southall, director of the CSRI says, 'and the fact of the matter is that when looking at the demographic profile of tennis and golf and lacrosse and soccer, those are much more highly qualified students than most football or men's basketball players.' (The NCAA's record numbers may also be explained, in part, by the fact that Ivy League schools, which don't award scholarships, were factored into the mix for the first time.),'"

Through this "numbers game," the NCAA tries to create the impression that the often criticized graduation rate in high-power varsity sports is improving when, in fact, it might not be improving at all.

For African-American division I athletes, the graduation rate, at least as recently as 2012, was only 50%!

"The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education provided data from a four-year study of athletes from the schools that comprise the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC. The findings show that on average, 50.2 percent of African-American male student-athletes graduated within six years and that 96.1 percent of the schools graduated African-American male student-athletes at rates lower than student-athletes overall."

Moreover, the areas of study that talented college athletes are encouraged to major in are often the least challenging so that students with limited background and learning abilities can remain on their team.

In a lawsuit against the NCAA, Ed O'Bannon, a former basketball player for UCLA, argued that steering college athletes into certain majors where they are more likely to do well demonstrates their indifference to these students' education. Lawyers for O'Bannon will focus on the issue of majors in order to illustrate college sports' divorce from academia. They intend to show that athletes are too often directed into majors that lead to sports success for the university rather than educational development for the individual."

In my opinion, the fundamental problem confronting Division l athletic programs comes at a time in which an increasing trend in higher education is becoming more obvious: education, except for the elite schools, is now run on a business model to the detriment of good teaching and good learning.

"March Madness" is well named since, as I don't hesitate in saying: "Insanity is the new normal." What I regret is that admirable people like Jim Boeheim get hurt in the process. But unless as a nation we finally grow up and realize that education should have priority over entertainment, we will end up as a second-rate country with first-rate varsity sports.