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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Graduation rates can't be bottom line for colleges

 •  Athletics fall short of college ideals

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

Imagine an NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament without Kentucky. Consider the Big Dance getting into swing without Arizona.

And, really, what would any tournament be without having Gonzaga around to spring a few surprises?

Yet all of them would have been in front of television sets instead of on them this year if the Knight Commission had its way.

Nor would they have been alone. Nearly half of the Sweet 16 field, including Final Four entrants Maryland and Arizona, would have had to sit this one out.

And, not because they weren't good enough, either. But because they didn't graduate enough.

Under a proposal — easily the most eye-opening among several contained in the commission's "A Call to Action: Reconnecting College Sports and Higher Education" — schools that did not graduate at least 50 percent of their athletes in a six-year period would be ineligible for conference and national championships.

Gowns before crowns.

An admirable goal by well-meaning people, to be sure.

But one clearly not in touch with current reality and, thus, doomed to failure.

The chances of the commission's proposal happening are about the same as the two-handed set shot sweeping college basketball. You'll see Dick Vitale at a loss for words first.

For proof of this we need look no further than what takes place today in New York. That is where the NBA holds its annual draft and where pre-draft projections have as many as 10 of the first 20 positions going to college underclassmen.

Ideally, perhaps, everybody would stay in school and earn a degree before stepping up to shake David Stern's hand, and entering the high-paying world of the NBA. Once upon a time many did. But that time has passed as the parade of high school seniors into the pros today reminds us.

These days quite a few college students of exceptional ability, even ones who don't pick up a bat, ball or javelin along the way, leave early to pursue careers. Look at the number of business and computer students who take their acquired skills into the real world to start dot.coms before getting a diploma. You think their business schools will lose accreditation? Hardly.

If Michael Wright, Richard Jefferson or Gilbert Arenas leave the Wildcats early for an NBA career, that doesn't make Arizona a jock factory anymore than Elton Brand, William Avery or Corey Maggette bolting before graduation does Duke.

With the increasing number of basketball players going directly from high school to the NBA without entering ivy walls or passing through a library, maybe the wonder is why many players are sticking around college as long as they do.

The hope is that those who do get exposed to college will be inclined to do what Vince Carter and Shaquille O'Neal have done and come back to graduate. Even if it is during the NBA playoffs.

The reality is that few colleges are going to turn down a top prospect, even if they suspect he won't be around for four years. And any college president that demands his basketball coach do so is likely to have an even shorter tenure than his basketball players. College presidents, not usually being delusional people, understand that.

College basketball in particular and college athletics in general have problems to be sure. They remain, despite a decade of Knight Commission proposals and more NCAA committees than you can count, a can covered with worms.

Fiscal insanity spreads, the academic mission is too often winked at and cartels reign.

These are problems that need to be addressed. But the solutions, unlike the one that has to do with graduation rates, should come grounded in enough reality that they will at least be taken seriously.

Ferd Lewis can be reached at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com.