Preserving the Academic Haven that is DIII Sports?

By Michael Spinner

The NCAA is committed to Academic Reform. They care about the students. They are dedicated to the athletes. They want to provide an atmosphere where those who compete in athletics use the lessons gained from their experiences as student-athletes to ascend to the upper echelon of society. They are so willing to sacrifice on behalf of academic achievement that they will do just about anything to promote the integrity of the very reason why athletes compete for the institutions they attend-the academics. And if you believe anything said here, I have quite the bridge to sell you.

In one of the most indescribably short-sighted decisions in recent memory, the NCAA Division III Presidents' Council voted on August 7 to take a "dramatic step to strengthen its commitment to academic reform…" (according to NCAA President Myles Brand) by adopting several measures, including eliminating athletics based aid at Division III institutions where a Division I sport competes. In other words, of the hundreds of schools that sponsor Division III athletics, a whopping 12 sports at eight of these institutions compete at Division I and offer athletic scholarships (Johns Hopkins lacrosse being one of them).

The seemingly overwhelming number of student-athletes competing at the Division I level for these institutions who are failing out of school, living on the streets, and begging for dollars (along with the broad-based tidal wave of support for this "reform") caused the Presidents' Council to pass this measure. After all, if College Presidents don't think of the children, who will? Will you be buying that bridge with Visa or Mastercard?

So let's get this straight…the NCAA is an organization that is run to such perfection that this "issue" has come to the forefront? Are we really to believe that the NCAA as a whole has nothing better to spend their time considering than a long-standing practice concerning an extreme minority of its membership? Where are the facts? Where are the figures? Where are the studies proving that by offering athletic scholarships, programs such as Johns Hopkins Lacrosse and Colorado College Ice Hockey offending the "academics first" tradition of Division III that such action is necessary?

Oh yes-there are no facts and figures. Apparently, there were no studies.

"The reform package voted today is the result of a serious and sustained effort involving a broad consultation within the membership," said John McCardell, chair of the Division III Presidents Council and President of Middlebury College.

And that means exactly what? Being that we're only talking about eight institutions and 12 programs involved with this "reform," it would seem to me that a "broad consultation" would not be necessary. In fact, the necessary consultation when considering such a possibility should have been eight phone calls to eight Athletics Directors of Division III schools who field a Division I scholarship program and the questions asked should have been something to the effect of the following:

  • "Do your Division I scholarship athletes graduate at a rate higher or lower than the rest of your student-athletes?"

  • "Do your Division I scholarship athletes maintain an academic index (a.k.a. GPA) that is higher or lower than the rest of your student-athletes?"

Based on the answers to these questions, the Division III Presidents' Council could have presented a "study" with empirical data to suggest that this move is the right way to go. They did not but instead presented a completely unnecessary "broad consultation." The methods behind this madness are already suspect. Remember, this move was approved in the name of "academic reform." Any other study besides the aforementioned data is not necessary to determine if allowing athletes such as Johns Hopkins lacrosse players to have athletic scholarships is an academic detriment.

But, of course, proponents of this measure will talk about the image the NCAA is trying to present. As far as the NCAA is concerned, Division III is an island to be isolated from the evil empire known as athletics aid. Division III is "academics first" and the NCAA is all about academics.

Somebody get me a shovel.

The issue here from my perch is not as much an issue of methodology as it is an issue of priority. The reality that the NCAA is a member driven institution makes this decision slightly acceptable because it was a group of College Presidents who comprise the Committee that made this move and it will ultimately be the membership as a whole who makes the final decision on the recommendation. It's not like one person made a politically motivated move and there is no balance to his or her power. For better or worse, the NCAA is a democratic institution and at least the masses can steer the course of Division III.

However, are we to really believe that the NCAA does not have bigger fish to fry? Not Division I, II, or III, the NCAA as a whole…is this "academic reform" the most pressing issue the organization has to overcome? I would venture to say that this is very much not the case. Observe the following:

  • On June 17, it was announced that Rutgers University Football (along with several other sports, including lacrosse) would lose scholarships and be placed on probation because of unspecified NCAA violations where academically ineligible athletes were allowed to compete. Now, let's put this in perspective here…Rutgers football cheated (for lack of a better term) in order to field one of the most brutally awful college football programs in the nation. This is a program that has some of the best facilities in college sports and a prime location and they not only have regularly lost to Division I-AA programs, but they cheated to get there! In other words, the proverbial worst of the worse is not playing by the rules-I can only imagine what the top tier programs are doing. At least programs such as JHU lacrosse are fielding academically eligible athletes. One would think that proper "academic reform" should address those who do not follow the rules.

  • If the NCAA was to pursue "academic reform," shouldn't it at least make sure that its student-athletes are graduating from college before it goes after these 12 programs at eight schools? The most recent figures the NCAA has made available suggest that despite all of the academic resources available at most colleges (i.e. books, library, paper), the NCAA's biggest cash cow, basketball, is not graduating its athletes. 41 percent of Division I men's basketball players are graduating. That includes the strongest, NBA producing programs, and the weak ones where athletes attend for the sole purpose of getting an education. Even more disturbing, the graduation rate for black basketball players stands at 33%. Note that the national graduation rate across the board is up near 60%, so NCAA basketball is far behind the norm. You like statistics? How about this one…of the 16 teams to advance to the 2003 "Sweet-16", 10 of those schools failed to graduate even half of their players during a six-year period! Oklahoma was the biggest culprit as they failed to offer one basketball player a degree during this six-year span.

    Academic reform? A basketball player can keep his scholarship for six years but can only play four years of ball. If most schools require 120-128 credits to graduate, that's 20 credits per academic year or about seven courses a year to graduate. Not exactly rocket science-note that Division I basketball as a whole did not produce one rocket scientist during the six years. During that span, 10 of the 16 best teams in the nation could not graduate half of their athletes and one fully accredited University couldn't get one to walk down the aisle. Amazing. I would say that this situation is a far greater academic detriment than having a few Division III institutions field Division I scholarship teams. But of course, the NCAA Division I basketball tournament brings the NCAA hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales and advertising revenues annually-hard to call for reform when the bottom line could be at stake!

    Let's face it…why are more and more High School basketball players skipping college to go straight to the NBA? They will not get a degree anyway, so why waste the time in college? Those who argue against allowing athletes to straight from High School to the pros fail to realize that an overwhelming majority of Division I basketball players never earn a degree anyway, particularly among minorities. According to the NCAA, this is not nearly as urgent as an academic issue as Johns Hopkins fielding a scholarship lacrosse program. Something is very wrong here.

  • Finally, for those of you who will say that my arguments are based solely on Division I examples, riddle me this: If Division III is so committed to "Academic Reform," why is it still more difficult to gain freshman eligibility to play a Division I or II sport than it is to play Division III? In other words, to play Division I or II (even non-scholarship), you have to have attained a certain academic performance in High School and passed a whole slew of "core courses." Not the case in Division III, you simply have to have a High School Diploma according to the NCAA. If Division III was all about academic reform, wouldn't this be the first place to go?

What no member of the Division III Presidents' Council would say and what nobody from the NCAA would allude to is that one of the sole purposes behind trying to pass this legislation comes down to simple dollars and cents. That's right, the money. Not one member of the Division III Presidents' Council represents an institution that fields a Division I sport. However, many of the schools on the council are small private schools where funds for athletics are scarce-I know this, I spent several years on the sidelines of one of these schools. By fielding a Division I sport, the eight schools involved have an extra source of fundraising for the athletics department, which means they have resources available that the rest of Division III does not have. Maybe fielding a Division I scholarship lacrosse team does not affect the academics of the Johns Hopkins institution, but the ticket/merchandise sales and sponsorships are a vital source of income for the Athletics Department. In the political world of the NCAA, this is seen as unfair and there is no doubt that the money being made by these eight institutions is a prime reason for this legislation. You take away the scholarships and many of the programs will either drop their Division I sport to Division III, move the entire Department to Division I, or field non-scholarships teams that are far less competitive. In any case, it's harder for these D1 programs to take financial advantage of the situation they have and the Division III playing field evens out. But if you wrap the legislation in dollar signs, nobody buys it. If you surround it with a bunch of failing report cards, it becomes popular.

In the meantime, the fact that JHU lacrosse is one of the most storied and valued traditions in the history of the sport is a non-issue, according to the NCAA. For more than a century, this program has not only produced top-notch athletes on the field, but it also has graduated its lacrosse players at a rate exceedingly higher than the NCAA average and the National non-athletic average as well. In other words, JHU lacrosse does the one thing that the rest of Division I is failing to do…it educates its athletes and puts diplomas in their hands. It allows its athletes to move on in life and contribute to society, even if they never become top-notch world class lacrosse players. If the mission that the NCAA embodies is to use athletics as a form of education to help build character and academia, Johns Hopkins Lacrosse is everything the NCAA ever hoped to accomplish but has failed to do so.

Over the years, I have come to know dozens of alumni of the Johns Hopkins lacrosse program and even consider several of them to be friends. With a few exceptions, the common thread that binds most of these men is that they are educated, intelligent, professional, and most importantly-successfully employed. They went to JHU to become top student-athletes in the true meaning of the term, played lacrosse at the highest level, graduated, and are using their degrees to be leaders of a whole variety of fields. In this area, Johns Hopkins lacrosse has succeeded as a program in a way that the elite of NCAA basketball has failed and continues to fail today. Now the NCAA wants to force JHU lacrosse to take an enormous step back in the name of "academic reform" for an organization that does little to support academics. Makes you wonder where the priorities of the NCAA lie.

August 23, 2003

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