Well before UConn began its magical march to the national men’s basketball championship, it led the 64-team tournament in a far less exalted category: lowest graduation rate. At 8 percent, UConn’s six-year graduation rate for its men’s basketball team is, frankly, a disgrace that can’t remotely be offset by the glories of Monday night’s victory. Second-year coach Kevin Ollie, who wasn’t in charge when the players started dropping classes like errant passes, wisely proclaimed that academics comes first, and touted the classroom success of this year’s team. He needs to keep working toward that goal, year in and year out, and seek to build a legacy similar to that of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose four national championships over 34 years is less impressive than the fact that 98 percent of his players have gotten degrees.
The problem with academics in intercollegiate sports is deeper than any one program. It’s a structural dynamic that’s easy to see: Craving the best athletes for the sports that drive alumni interest and fundraising, universities stretch their admissions standards to accept players who would have a hard time handling their classwork in the best of circumstances. But athletes face an array of challenges that other students don’t: a punishing practice schedule that chews up dozens of hours a week; a mixed set of incentives, since they get their scholarships based on performance in sports, not academics; and an exalted status on campus that puts them beyond some of the normal checks and balances that keep other students focused on classes.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association bears a lot of the blame for letting sports overtake academics for far too many players. Lately, it’s tried to show some teeth by banning schools, including UConn last year, from championship play if their graduation rates are chronically low. But it’s an imperfect punishment. While universities deserve blame for low graduation rates, their current players — who aren’t responsible for the failures of their predecessors — do not. It’s tough to deprive them of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Over the years, the person best positioned to manage the conflicting pressures on the players has been the coach. If coaches make academics a priority, their players are far more likely to earn degrees. Some coaches, like Krzyzewski, are well known for showing care and concern for their players’ classroom performance. Others, like Ollie’s UConn predecessor, longtime coach Jim Calhoun, carry the opposite reputation. So, Ollie has his work cut out for him. At 41, he’s already lived up to Calhoun’s basketball legacy. It will take a lot of effort for him, and UConn, to live down Calhoun’s record of letting team members falter as students. He need only look down the hall of UConn’s athletic department for inspiration: The UConn women’s basketball team also brought home a national championship this year — with a 92 percent graduation rate.