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Playing graduation hardball with student athletes

Monday night was the culmination of the 2004 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and it showcased the University of Connecticut against Georgia Tech.

But in another competition between the 65 schools participating in this year’s March Madness, Stanford edged out Lehigh. The competition to which I refer, of course, is to decide which institution’s basketball team has the highest graduation rate.

While the current system is somewhat flawed in its calculations, I applaud the NCAA for considering strict new guidelines that will penalize schools that fail to make the grade in the classroom. It is about time that the primary goals of our institutions of higher learning focus on academia and not merely the hardwood.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics released a report March 18 showing that less than one-third of the teams playing in the 2004 tournament would be left playing if a graduation rate of 50 percent was required.

Some statistics from the report: Of the Final Four teams, Duke was highest with a 67 percent rate, with the next schools being the University of Connecticut and Georgia Tech with a 27 percent graduation rate. I must add, however, that these numbers are artificially low because of how transfer students are factored into the rate. If a player transfers into or out of a school, his or her graduation is not counted in the total percentage.

Additionally, a player who leaves school early to go professional will negatively impact the graduation rate. Despite these imperfections, it is clear that academic achievement is not a priority at many of these Division I schools, and until such steps are taken to require higher graduation rates to compete, the numbers will only decline.

Some student athletes need an incentive to pick up their textbooks and study rather than simply going to school to get their brand new pair of Nike sneakers. Tying athletic competition to successfully completing a degree sends the right message to student athletes, the student body as a whole and the millions in the general public so eager to turn on their televisions to watch the next game.

It shows that the university and the governing body recognize the value of the education that they provide on and off the court. At the end of the day, many student athletes will never sign those lucrative, professional contracts, but a successful college education, along with participation in a sport, will go far in equipping those men and women for success in life.

I realize that even if the NCAA approves a plan, it will take many years to fully implement. However, regulations need to be put in place to slow the corporate greed and refocus student athletes on the real reason someone goes to college: to get an education.

The current NCAA proposal would set a graduation rate based on the general population graduation rate of the school itself, which makes sense. In addition, I believe coursework needs to be designed in such a way that student athletes do not take courses that have final exam questions such as, “How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?” which found its way into an exam given by Georgia’s assistant basketball coach Jim Harrick Jr. The NCAA should ensure that its athletes are making significant progress toward their degree requirements, whatever their intended discipline.

Before everyone judges me as anti-sports or a closet nerd, let me say that I did tune in to the championship game Monday night. I enjoy watching basketball and baseball and football … and especially enjoy the storylines that surround the major players of the tournament.

One of the best stories this year is that of Connecticut’s star 6-10 center, Emeka Okafor, who is graduating in three years with a 3.8 GPA in finance. The New York Times summed up his success in its April 4 issue: “For some he is an example of a great student who happens to be an athlete.”

While Okafor may be an extraordinary case, he represents the pinnacle of student athletes who have chosen to succeed well after the final buzzer.

Aaron Hill is a sophomore majoring in chemistry.