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U.S. College Basketball and the Missing Social Contract

How are U.S. universities failing to uphold their end of the social contract when it comes to student athletes?

April 5, 2007

How are U.S. universities failing to uphold their end of the social contract when it comes to student athletes?

For some, the thrill of the NCAA Tournament lies in the players' passion, determination and will to win. For others, including alumni or local fans, the attraction comes from following their favorite team — knowing that at the end of the long road that is the NCAA Tournament, their team could be crowned National Champions.

With its enormous popularity, the NCAA Tournament brings in big advertising money for broadcasters — as well as sizable donations to the schools that perform particularly well.

The 2007 Tournament, which concluded April 2 with a repeat victory by the University of Florida, did not fail to impress. No matter one's favorite team, college basketball fans across the United States had to appreciate what the 2007 Tournament brought.

It included great matchups, strong teams and once-in-a-generation players, such as Kevin Durant of Texas and Greg Oden of Ohio State. However, there is an underlying truth behind all the golden moments of the NCAA Tournament that is still overlooked by many fans and university officials: Most college basketball players do not graduate.

At most schools, there is an enormous discrepancy between the graduation rates for basketball players and regular students.

In fact, at this year's "Sweet 16" schools, only 38.5% of men's basketball players have earned a diploma, according to a data analysis by the Washington Post. At some schools, such as Oregon, the University of Tennessee, University of Nevada at Las Vegas and Texas A&M, the graduation rates are abysmally low — at 0%, 8%, 10% and 15%, respectively.

While the universities themselves should not be held entirely responsible for athletes' low graduation rates, speculation abounds that many universities are not doing enough to help their athletes earn a diploma.

The NCAA itself claims that it investigates the matter, but no major moves have been made by the NCAA or university officials to assure that at least a majority of student-athletes has the necessary opportunities to leave college with a degree.

While the scholarships provided by college basketball open the doors to higher education to many athletes, being a collegiate athlete is a year-round job that requires an enormous time commitment. Indeed, the time commitment needed to compete at the top echelons of college basketball causes several complications for athletes.

With long distances to and from games and daily practices, absences are typical. Even when present in class, their minds are often focused entirely on their next game — and not on the material being discussed. It is not uncommon for the minutes spent analyzing the teams' previous game to greatly outnumber time spent studying in the library.

The injustice of this system is demonstrated by the fact that universities make big money and garner national media attention from their athletes' performance — while these athletes leave college ill-prepared for their future.

In fact, with the majority of the players being African American, some go so far as to argue that the arrangement is a modern form of the plantation system — with the wealthy universities representing the plantation owners gaining money on the shoulders of their workers. Others see the athletes as modern-day journeymen who travel across the country and labor hard to demonstrate their skills — all in the hopes of beating the odds by striking it rich with an NBA contract.

While these comparisons are a bit extreme, the relevant point is that the student athletes are essentially pawns in the colleges' game of using sports to increase alumni donations and garner national media coverage. This raises an important question: What do the universities owe these players?

The underlying social contract holds that the academic community owes these athletes every opportunity to achieve success off the basketball court.

At the very least, U.S. universities should offer student athletes who fail to earn a four-year diploma the opportunity to obtain a community college education.

In contrast to an academically intensive four-year university education, the community college experience stresses real-world skills and vocational training. Such a proposal would give these young athletes a chance to lead successful lives by enabling them to learn a trade and develop a real-world skill set. This way, they can become something other than failed basketball players.

In addition, the cost to universities of such a program would pale in comparison to the revenues the athletes have generated for their schools.
Considering how much student athletes benefit their universities by succeeding on the basketball court, it is only fair that the universities reciprocate by giving the players the chance to succeed off the court as well.