Let’s Clean Up College Basketball and Football

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The needless tragedy of big-time college basketball and football today is that a small number of bad actors are tainting everyone—the universities that continue to hire and pay wildly-inflated salaries to renegade coaches, the college presidents who turn a blind eye to recruiting abuses, and the image of the National Collegiate Athletic Association itself. This tainting of college sports is unnecessary because intercollegiate sports ordinarily serve an invaluable role on campus–I know they did for me and my sister; both of us played intercollegiate basketball and went on to play for several years overseas after graduating for college.

Student athletes learn lessons on courts and playing fields that are difficult to pick up in chemistry lab. Resilience in the face of adversity, selflessness, teamwork, self-discipline, and finding your passion are all values that sports can uniquely transmit. Many of those character-building traits are every bit as critical to succeeding in life as sheer book smarts.

More than 410,000 student athletes participate in NCAA championship sports, including more than 161,000 student athletes in Division I alone. For the vast majority of student athletes, intercollegiate sports enrich their college years and build a well-rounded student experience. My father, a professor at the University of Chicago, was the faculty representative to the NCAA for more than a quarter century. He believed passionately that sports help universities fulfill a dual mission, to educate students and prepare them for life.

Yet the valuable role of sports on campus has a shadow cast over it these days because of ongoing abuses, especially in Division I men’s basketball and big-time college football programs. About a quarter of the 64 teams in last year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament graduated less than 40 percent of their players. Four teams graduated zero percent of their African-American ball players. By contrast, Wake Forest, Florida State, Robert Morris, Utah State, and Western Kentucky all graduated 100 percent of their players, black and white.

You cannot explain away that kind of variation—zero percent versus 100 percent—by reference to the usual suspects. The institutions and coaches have to play a role. There are still too many coaches who care more about getting a student athlete out on the court in a uniform than about getting them in a cap and gown four years later.

Only a small minority of renegade coaches and institutions are running programs that cast a cloud over intercollegiate athletics but their stories are well known. Players at one football powerhouse were charged with 24 criminal offenses in the last four years, including nine felonies. Players on a division rival racked up 30 arrests in four years. If the number of players arrested each year on a team exceeds the team GPA, that program needs a house-cleaning.

Yet, instead of being sanctioned or suspended, rogue coaches are landing lucrative coaching positions at new institutions—while the schools and players left behind suffer sanctions and loss of postseason opportunities. Players who, through no fault of their own, lose the right to play in postseason play, should be able to transfer out of their school immediately.

How can we protect men’s basketball and football from abuses? Here are three ideas. First, slow down. Right now, coaches can make scholarship offers to elite athletes in eighth grade. One fan web site joked that coaches would soon be making college offers to embryos. At minimum, coaches should be obliged to wait to make offers until after the sophomore year of high school.

It’s time as well to reform the NBA’s “one-and-done” rule, which requires NBA recruits to “attend” college for a year or be 19 before they are drafted. One-and-done is a mockery of college education. Star athletes arrive on campus and take just enough credit hours to retain their eligibility during their first semester in school. In the second semester, they drop out as soon as the season is over and start working out with agents in anticipation of being drafted.

Major league baseball has a much better system. Baseball allows players to be drafted straight out of high school. But if a high school baseball player is not drafted and heads for college, they cannot be drafted again until after their third year. If college men’s basketball adopted a similar system, a handful of budding basketball superstars—the Lebron James’s and Kevin Garnett’s—could jump directly to the NBA. But the vast majority of players would go on to college and get some real education and maturity under their belt before they contemplate going pro.

Second, boosting low graduation rates should be part of a coach’s job. I would suggest that, at minimum, teams with less than a 40 percent graduation rate be prohibited from post-season competition.

Finally, it’s time to re-empower coaches but at the same time hold them to a higher standard of accountability. I would propose a grand bargain: When a program has a clean record and good outcomes, coaches should have more leeway to increase their contact with players in the offseason. We don’t now cap the amount of time that a star violinist practices with the orchestra or the lab time of a budding scientist.

But when programs show the wrong values and have terrible educational outcomes, coaches should be held personally responsible for their lack of leadership. They should be suspended, sanctioned, or barred. And if the coach jumps ship to a new team, the penalties should follow the coach—rather than punishing innocent players left in their wake.

With the exception of the military, few institutions do more to build leadership and character in our nation’s young men and women than collegiate sports. It is time for universities to burnish that legacy and recall their True North: If a college fails to educate all of its students, if it fails to give them a chance to learn and grow, then that university has failed. It is time to clamp down on the bad actors.

Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education