Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Excitement in Mudville

As far as I know, the University of Connecticut is the only school to have won the men's and women's NCAA basketball championship in the same year, which I believe was 2004. (I'm not going to look it up because it isn't that important.) This year, UCONN can do it again.

The women's team, which won last year, was rated number one all season and was expected to be the team to beat. They play their semifinal match tonight, against Stanford, who they already beat easily earlier in the season. The men's team, however, is a surprise. They went into the tournament as a 7th seed, having been trounced by Louisville in the American Conference final. They survived and overtime scare to get through the first round. Then they went on to beat number 4, 3, 2, and finally 1 seeds, the latter being Florida, the consensus pick to win it all, who they trounced to make the championship game on Monday.

So, I have some fandom in the game when it comes to the controversies about the NCAA. As a matter of fact, long-time UCONN men's coach retired under a cloud last year with the program on probation over poor academic performance. The men's team has always had a poor graduation rate, and it's not because they are going on to riches in the NBA, for the most part. (The women, on the other hand, do really go to college and graduate.) This year, however, under new coach Kevin Ollie, things seem to have changed. In fact their superstar point guard Shabazz Napier is expected to graduate in May, fulfilling a promise to his mother, after a solid academic career. And yes, NBA riches await him, but he deferred for the full four years.

But we've seen situations like Kentucky, in which playing on the basketball team obviously has nothing to do with going to college and nothing particularly to do with the University of Kentucky. The players do one season and it's on to the pros. I suppose if that's your chosen career path you don't have a strong argument to be paid, but you don't have much of an argument for an athletic scholarship either. Much worse, of course, are the kids who play on the team, help the coach and the athletic director earn millions, never get an education and never make it to the pros either. The ratio is even worse in football, and they risk traumatic encephalopathy in the process.

At my place of employment, in contrast, athletics has its place and we even produce the occasional NFL player. But the Ivy League does not give athletic scholarships. You get an edge on admission if you're a talented athlete but you still have to fulfill the academic requirements to stay on the team and stay enrolled. We don't offer a Rocks for Jocks course or a phys-ed major. I won't say that the top athletes don't get a break or that none of them suffers from the entitled jerk complex associated with male athleticism. I don't know about that. But college sports as a community building exercise for the university, fun and good exercise and character building for the participants -- that isn't entirely mythological, at Brown or at the other colleges and universities I've been associated with.

What I think we need to do is create two separate categories of college athletics. Top division football and basketball programs a) should pay their players and b) should give athletes the opportunity to get a college education but they can also take a pure athletic track in which their official career ambition is to be a professional athlete or coach and that's what they're studying to do. And yes, if they aren't meeting requirements to credibly stay on that track, they're off the team and out of the program. That's only fair to them, as a matter of fact. And if they have a career-ending injury, they get a full scholarship, tuition and room and board, to get a degree in something else. And if they can't cut it at the university, the university will pay for vocational training.

So no, there won't be a level playing field, any more than there is for the New York Yankees and the Milwaukee Brewers. Colleges that want to sponsor a pro sports team should do just that. There can be a limit on salaries, but the athletes should be paid. Colleges that want to have collegiate athletics should play in a completely different league, and should not provide scholarships to people just to play games. Take our pick, but don't pretend that one thing is the other.

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