Friday, March 19, 2010

"Scholar-Athletes" Ought to Graduate

My political/cultural blog over on Livejournal—the one that has apparently decided it doesn’t want to let me post there any more—was subtitled “From the Radical Middle.” The point was (and is) that few people who actually think have what others would regard as a consistent ideology. I’m liberal on this issue, conservative on that one, libertarian here, socialist there. And while others may regard my politics as consistently liberal, I don’t. I hasten to add here that I don’t run away from the label the way, say, John Kerry did in the ’04 election; I just don’t think it applies. But I’ve been accused of worse.

One way in which I am a “liberal,” or a “progressive,” or whatever those folks are calling themselves now, is that I see the Obama administration not as the conservative talking heads do, as socialistic hegemon unwilling to grant the opposition the right to sit at the table, but rather as the precise opposite: my problem with the President is that I perceive him as too willing to listen, too interested in getting bi-partisan support, too reticent about metaphorically breaking a few legs. My approach: “You want to filibuster? Go ahead, but you’re going to have to do it like Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mister Smith Goes to Washington’: we’re not going to pull legislation because you threaten. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure the television cameras are there so the whole country can see what a pompous, hypocritical, puerile little jackass you are.” “Senator Lieberman, you were re-elected on a platform that included a health care package that looks a whole lot like what you’re now opposing. You can vote against it if you want, but if you vote against cloture, kiss that committee chairmanship good-bye. Oh, and if you say word one about this conversation to anyone you’re out of the caucus altogether.” “As for you, Representative Stupak, would you rather receive the endorsement of the DNC, or would you rather we actively solicit an actual Democrat to run against you in a primary? If the former, then become persuaded that the safeguards already present in the bill actually exist, STFU, and vote for the damned thing, because your 15 minutes of fame has expired.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of bi-partisanship. There have been occasions when, in those elections between two generally equally mediocre candidates, I’ve voted for “gridlock.” (I may not be the libertarian I once was, but those roots run deep.) But it became very clear very early in this administration that the Republicans—all of them, not just the pre-existing frothing-at-the-mouth brigade—made a collective decision to do everything in their power to obstruct any initiative generated by this President, whether such a measure would help the country or not, whether their constituents would benefit or not, even whether they themselves were already on record supporting the idea or not. And while the first few years of this millennium certainly demonstrated that the Republicans are horrible at governance, they did study long enough at the Karl Rove School of Outrageous Prevarication and Political Slimeballitude to get pretty good at ululating that the minority didn’t get absolutely everything they wanted at a negotiation, at playing to the simmering racial animus that motivates much of their base, at whining about the (corporatist) media when those so-called journalists actually do their job (by accident, no doubt), and at creating Astroturf events which get lots of press coverage but actually demonstrate the failures of the American educational system that anyone could believe the crap being spewed out there. It’s all about their power, and if there’s no country left at the end of their disingenuous and petulant outbreaks, well, that’s a risk they’re apparently willing to take.

The point is, the President tried bipartisanship, even repeatedly sent his minion Rahm Emanuel out to chastise his own left wing (this from the guy the right-wing media keeps calling a socialist) when they resisted the dilution beyond recognition of the fundamental points of what we—those millions more of us who voted for him than for the other guy—thought was his agenda. And yet he has been labeled by the right as being somehow an extreme partisan (compared to his predecessor? really?). The correct response is the one we’ve all been tempted to make when accused of something of which we’re completely innocent: “You call that [fill-in-the-blank]? Here (with demonstration) is [fill-in-the-blank].

But this entry isn’t really about politics. It’s about college sports; specifically, it’s about men’s basketball and the NCAA tournament which some of you may have noticed is currently transpiring. You see, a couple months ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the first person in that job to actually care about education in a very long time indeed, made headlines by walking into the lion’s den of the NCAA meeting in Atlanta and pointing out, if I might mix my metaphors here, that the emperor has no clothes. He argued, for example, that the cozy little one-and-done rule worked out by the NBA and the NCAA is pretty much a fraud. It has considerable potential to hurt the game, hurt (some of) the athletes, hurt the fans… but the NBA gets to use college ball as its unpaid minor league, the NCAA gets to profit from the labors of athletes already good enough, at 18, to play professionally, and both get to continue the pretense that they give a damn about anything or anyone but themselves.

Still, there’s little chance of changing that stupid rule. A rule that could be changed, however, from outside the NCAA if need be (although I wouldn't recommend that approach), is tied to graduation rates. Duncan talked about this two months ago, and repeated it this week. Mike Celizic, one of the more thoughtful sportswriters around these days, has picked up the cue. You see, Duncan suggested that for a team to be eligible to compete in the NCAA basketball tournament, they’d have to actually graduate (gasp) 40% of their players within six years (and those who leave early to pursue an NBA career, who transfer to another school, or even who leave in good academic standing wouldn’t count against them!). With all those caveats, with all the assistance available to jocks (and often unavailable to other students), with tuition and fees paid (don’t even start with that nonsense about all their other expenses, as if kids without jump-shots don’t have the same problems without the pampering), requiring a 40% graduation rate to go to the tournament is roughly equivalent to saying you can’t get a driver’s license unless you can identify the brake pedal.

But the whining from the NCAA, coaches, and other hypocrites has been, well, reminiscent of the Boehner Brigade’s mendacity. Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl, who is very, very, good at rationalization and even better at recruiting kids who, in Celizic’s words, “have less interest in going to class than a cat has in taking swimming lessons,” whimpers that all he wants to do is provide “the opportunity to students that aren’t prepared.” Celizic rightly calls “BS” (and I don't mean Bachelor of Science) on that. Pearl and many (most?) of his brethren don’t give a crap about under-prepared kids in general, just the 6’8” ones with post-up skills. And when they’ve served the only purpose Pearl has for them, namely winning basketball games and thereby inflating his salary, he’s perfectly willing to toss them, 70% of them, sans degree or NBA contract, on the scrap heap. But, compared to Gary Williams of Maryland, who manages to graduate only 1 in 12 of his players (despite a contract which rewards him for his players’ academic success), Pearl is a pedagogical poster-child. Similarly, the NCAA, whose College Republican-style automata drone on about “student-athletes” or even “scholar-athletes” instead of “players,” is, as usual, a lot longer on sanctimony than on substance.

It’s important at this point to explode the canard that “everybody else is doing it, and we can’t compete unless we do, too.” Horse puckey. No program is without its skeletons, and I adopt something of the attitude of Restoration comedy that the ones who trumpet their righteousness the loudest probably have the most to hide. That said, there are many programs that recruit young men (and women—but there’s less, not to say no, hypocrisy on the women’s side) who actually want to get an education, and who ultimately earn a degree. The folks at, for example, have set up their own bracket, with teams advancing based on their success at achieving the NCAA’s Progress Rate. Last year’s winner: North Carolina, who won the real tournament, too. This year’s winner: Kansas, who defeats fellow #1 seed Duke in the finals… a scenario which could very easily play out in the actual tournament, too. The website also, incidentally, chuckles at itself a little for, picking, say, Ohio over Georgetown. Oh, wait…

In other words, don’t sing me a long sad song about how you can’t compete and educate at the same time—not if the likes of North Carolina, Kansas, and Duke can manage especially high graduation rates. And don’t complain about Mr. Duncan’s proposal, ‘cuz when they make me Tsar, it’s gonna look like this. First off, we start at 40%, but that number goes up by 5% every year until it reaches 75%. Yes, 75%. If the departure of a player in good academic standing doesn’t count against a team, that’s not an unreasonable standard. The first time a team falls below a standard within a five-year period, they get a warning, and all players in good academic standing are free to transfer to another school without a waiting period. Second time in a five-year period: no post-season play of any kind, students in good standing can transfer without penalty, and the coach is summarily fired and barred from working in any capacity at any NCAA school for three years. See if you can make $2.4 million a year working at the carwash, Bruce. Third time in a five-year period: same punishment for the Athletic Director. You want “scholar-athletes”? I’ll show you “scholar-athletes.”

Of course, this will increase the pressure on people like me to be kind to lazy idiots who take up a disproportionate amount of our time with no care, let alone hope, for success in the classroom. I was once asked by my boss (not here) to give an independent study to the starting power forward and, regardless of how he performed, to give him a C or better. I said no. I once failed a star athlete who easily exceeded the maximum number of allowable absences (he did claim that one of them should have been excused because he was in court… being convicted of an E felony), never wrote either of the required papers, missed a test and a couple of quizzes altogether, and got something like a 37 on the final. But I had an assistant coach badger me for days, pleading this little punk’s case. I said no. Repeatedly. And if I can do it, so can (and likely will) a lot of other faculty around the country. But, just to make sure, we’ll make any interference with the grading process (including advocacy) by any coach a violation of NCAA rules. There are also a handful of extremely good basketball players who are just, well, stupid. That’s why they can go to the NBA at any time, and the NBA will also be obligated to underwrite a legitimate minor-league system for players who have no interest in college. It works in baseball; it can work in basketball.

Oh, and this column wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t enumerate the entire Wall of Shame of this year’s NCAA tournament participants who don’t graduate 40% of their players. In order of increasing ineptitude/amorality: Louisville. Georgia Tech. Clemson. New Mexico State. Missouri. Baylor. Kentucky. Tennessee. Washington. Arkansas—Pine Bluff. California. Maryland. There are some very good universities on that list… maybe even some that could be shamed into doing the right thing if they got enough bad press. Just doing my part…

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