WASHINGTON — BILL BRADLEY, Tom McMillen, and Ed Towns want young athletes to have the same opportunity they did: to gain an education as well as athletic experience in college. The three men have introduced a proposal into Congress to require every school to tell the US Department of Education how many of their varsity athletes actually graduate, with the figures separated by sport. In turn, the department would make information public, identifying each school by name.
Mr. Bradley, Mr. McMillen, and Mr. Towns not only competed in college sports, but each of them after graduation, achieved political success after their athletic careers were over. They are: Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, Rep. Tom McMillen (D) of Maryland, and Rep. Edolphus ``Ed'' Towns (D) of New York.
Presumably education, followed by graduation, is the central purpose of college. But the three men contend that it is not necessarily the case for many students who compete in college and universities' two major revenue-producing sports, basketball and football. Emphasis on winning takes on particularly large dimensions, they say, because winning teams earn more money for their schools through higher ticket sales, post-season playoff games, and television revenue.
In 40 percent of such schools, fewer than one-quarter of the varsity basketball players graduate, reports a recent study by the General Accounting Office. At nearly 25 percent of these schools, fewer than one-quarter of all football players graduate. At one large university only ``a pathetic 7 percent'' of students on basketball scholarships graduated between 1972 and 1983, Senator Bradley says.
``It's a national scandal,'' says Rev. Timothy Healy, president of Georgetown University. He calls the situtation ``an abuse of kids, to hold them for four years and toss them away, like a dirty towel.'' Also disgraceful is that 60 percent of these young men are black Americans, he says.
By contrast, Georgetown is known for pressing its student-athletes to work hard in the classroom, as well as on the basketball court, to get their degrees. ``About 90 percent'' of Georgetown's varsity basketball players graduate, he says.
Towns, Bradley, and McMillen say their proposal is classic consumer legislation. ``This information is vital to a young person's choice of school and should be available to the general public,'' Representative McMillen says. ``It's one's right to know,'' adds Representative Towns, the bill's original congressional backer.
Bradley and McMillen both matriculated from college to professional basketball, then to Congress. But most college athletes never make professional teams. Two years ago 12,000 young college men played college basketball, but only 161 were drafted by professional teams, McMillen says. ``Our young people must understand that athletics alone will not sustain a life,'' he adds.
Congress is listening. It has held wide-ranging hearings on the problems of amateur sports, and now is considering the athlete's-right-to-know act. Such moves are part of recent concerns in various sectors of American society, that now are reaching Congress. Other education-sports issues moving the same direction include: illicit financing of amateur athletes, illegal drug use (including steroids), and a general overemphasis on athletics. Some colleges, individually and through the National Collegiate Athletic Association, have also been trying to deal with these issues.
Recently the House subcommittee on postsecondary education considered many aspects of athletics and education in college. The panel, however, has not decided whether to recommend that Congress enact any new laws - including the right-to-know proposal. As now worded, the right-to-know bill contains no punishment. But if a school fails to give the information to the education department, that fact will be passed to high school seniors, too.
McMillen hints broadly that he might support more drastic action if colleges that routinely take advantage of their athletes did not respond to what Williams calls the ``labeling'' proposal.
McMillen issues a somber warning: ``If you think we have a problem now, wait 20 years.'' By then the proliferation of sports on television, especially cable TV, will further distort values, he says. Americans already have such a ``fixation on sports that America is losing the battle'' to be economically competitive in the world market, he says.
But do young athletes about to enter college really care about graduation rates? Despite popular perceptions, they really do, Bradley says. He cites a study by the American Institutes for Research.
``It reported,'' he says, ``that the overwhelming majority of white as well as black football and basketball players at predominantly white schools said that earning a college degree was the personal goal of greatest importance.''