Prioritizing Academics, Athletes’ Well-Being and Fairness? The Drake Group calls on NCAA to Follow its own Rhetoric During its Biggest Showcase

“Prioritizing academics, well-being, fairness…”

This is the NCAA mantra that is being touted and has been persistently repeated throughout the NCAA Final Four tournament events in Columbus, Ohio and San Antonio during the Division I men’s and women’s basketball championships. This message is of course amplified by television, social media and other delivery systems. In fact, the NCAA public relations machine is so hard at work trying to convince the public that it is doing a great job, that even the most avid supporters of college sports are beginning to wonder whether there’s something more behind the facade?

This massive NCAA public relations effort will not accomplish much because what is happening in college sports cannot be hidden. Putting “lipstick on a pig” will not change the nature of the beast. The truth is already out in the open. It’s no secret that last year, the FBI uncovered the fact that college athletes were essentially being pimped out for money for everyone else, except of course, for the athlete. Let’s examine those ubiquitous television commercials featuring the great Jerry Rice stating that college athletes will get something much more valuable than fame and a professional athletics career, ostensibly namely a “world class” education and the attainment of a college degree. While these noble statements make great sound bites, the reality is much darker. It is clear that in college football and basketball, we are not meeting these basic expectations because student academic achievement is being sacrificed at the altar of entertainment and revenue generation. Division I higher education institutions have succumbed to commercialized sport.

The NCAA will often tout high graduation rates and academic progress rate (APR) scores as direct evidence that academics are indeed the priority and the end game of athletics is a college degree. Not so. Rather, the evidence is clear that such NCAA claims are nothing more than a smokescreen and public relations ploy to make us all feel good while we watch the March Madness. Let’s look at the facts:

  • African-American male athletes still graduate at abysmal levels in comparison to their white counterparts even though they make up the largest population of athletes in the two primary revenue generation sports of football and men’s basketball. In a just released report by the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, Dr. Shaun R. Harper, Ph.D., eviscerates any NCAA claim that they are doing a better job educating and graduating African American Athletes. Harper exposes the NCAA sleight of hand by noting the NCAA is correct is saying that African American athletes are graduating at a higher rate than African American students but that is across the entirety of all Division I sports. The results are much different and dramatically lower when examining the primary revenue generators, football and men’s basketball, in the Power 5 conferences. This excellent report can be found at USC Race and Equity Report.
  • The NCAA also points out that college athletes typically have better graduation rates than the general student body at most institutions. While on paper this may be true, the academic metric used tell another story. In reality, having the same graduation rate as the general student body is not good enough. The metric the NCAA uses to tally its numbers is the Federal Graduation Rate (FGR) which includes part-time and full-time students as a comparison in a 6-year cohort. Since the NCAA requires full-time enrollment for athletic eligibility and provides extraordinary scholarship support for college athletes, actual athlete graduation rates should b be much highter. The FGR is not a true measure of college athlete academic persistence and graduation. Dr. Woodrow Eckard of the University of Denver, Dr. Richard Southall of the University of South Carolina and The College Sports Research Institute at the University of South Carolina have been issuing yearly reports discussing the adjusted graduation gap (AGG) that shows that the high graduation rates the NCAA advertises are not what they seem. See 2017 AGG report for men’s basketball at AGG Report.
  • The NCAA has also conveniently developed its own Graduation Success Rate which actually counts lost transfers or “left eligibles” – athletes who leave an institution in good academic standing. This means athletes who leave in poor academic standing (typically below a 2.0 grade-point average) are counted negatively against a school’s graduation rate, but players who leave school in good academic standing are simply removed from the NCAA’s graduation rate calculation giving another false narrative as the final academic disposition of the athlete is essentially never known. Dr. Gerry Gurney discussed this practice in a recent article entitled The Hoax of NCAA Graduation Rates. See The Hoax. In addition, the majority of the 65 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Power Five Conference schools, embrace the deceitful practice of special admissions for athletes – waiving normal academic admissions standards. Rather than academically remediating these under prepared students, these predominantly minority athletes are guided to register for easy majors and courses in order to maintain their minimal athletic eligibility requirements. Look no further than the sorry academic fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina to see how far schools will go to mask what is really going on in the name of “prioritizing academics, well-being, and fairness.”

Can we fix this? Yes we can. If we truly want to provide college athletes with a bona fide undergraduate education, there is a blueprint for how to fix the system. The Drake Group (www.thedrakegroup.org) has been a force for reform in college sports for almost 20 years. We have a plan for academic reform, and the NCAA does not. Our plan consists of bringing academic integrity back to college sports. These reform mandates can be found in various white papers on the Drake website and include the following proposed actions:

  • Publicly disclose, on an annual basis and within federal privacy guidelines, athletes’ academic majors, advisors and faculty teaching independent study courses
  • Eliminate athlete only academic support centers run by the athletic department that silo athletes away from the general student body and are more eligibility maintenance driven rather than academically prioritized
  • Provide athletes with guaranteed five-year scholarship that cannot be taken away for an athletics reason
  • Liberalize current transfer policies that penalize athletes who wish to change institutions, including adoption of a one-time transfer exception for athletes in all sports and no right of refusal by the coach or institution to limit movement of the athlete.
  • Require maintenance of a 2.0 overall GPA to be eligible in college sports at all times
  • Mandate an absolute 25 hour limit on all countable athletically related activities without the convenient loopholes the NCAA allows now
  • Eliminate two-semester sports and curtail or eliminate second non-traditional seasons
  • Prohibit the building of lavish facilities for athletes only that only serve as barriers to interacting with non-athlete students and experiencing the richness of a college education
  • Limit the freshman ineligibility for athletes who are more than one-standard deviation below the academic profile (SAT and GPA) of the incoming freshman class. One of the worst things done in college sports is bringing in kids who cannot compete academically without effective remediation. This is even more acute for the academically deficient athlete who is practicing 40 plus hours a week, traveling, missing class etc. The Drake Group believes institutions should admit whomever they chose but there must be an obligation to remediate them effectively, with limited athletic activity, so they can academically and athletically compete later. Coaches will tout red-shirting (providing scholarship support but not allowing participation in competition for a full academic year) as a way to develop an athlete but don’t don’t institute the same practice for an academically underdeveloped athlete.

Putting in these common sense reforms along with others can shift the paradigm to an “education first” model. The NCAA has claimed in the recently concluded O’Bannon v. NCAA case and in its briefs in the upcoming Jenkins et al. v NCAA case that its product would not be as popular if the athletes were not students. If this claim is true, adopting The Drake Group plan to ensure educational sport should be implemented. After all we will still watch the games regardless. It is time to use this focus on March Madness and basketball excellence, to reflect on actually stopping the real madness of commercialized sport. Now is the time to recognize the deceit and false narratives and acknowledge the truth. The Division I football and basketball system is broken. Real reform for college sports is long overdue and there are better ways than embracing the NCAA public relations machine to accomplish it.

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