When academics play second string to sports, student athletes are the losers

Today Boston College takes on Notre Dame in college football's Liberty Bowl. No matter which team wins, each college will pocket upwards of $600,000. It is no surprise that college sports have become big business. Money, television networks, gung-ho alumni, and college reputations all put tremendous pressure on college athletic programs to have winning teams. And, according to concerned observers, in many cases the student-athletes are exploited by colleges in the face of such pressures.

Many athletes sign up to play college football or basketball with hopes of jumping into a glorious career in professional sports. Yet the sobering fact that fewer than 2 percent of them make it as professionals should give colleges incentive to provide them with a good education - and a prospect for the future.

But more sobering statistics show that colleges often do not. In the Big 10 conference, the graduation rate for football players is 36 percent, says Derek Bok, president of Harvard University. In the Southwest conference, he says, only 17 percent graduate.

''College sports really are more professional than amateur,'' Dr. Bok says. Activities that occur within the world of college sports - recruiting violations , gambling on the games, point-shaving, national television coverage, and the money that supports many athletic programs - bear out his assertion.

Here in New England, where higher education is practically enshrined, there are few problems. Yet, even as players prepare for kickoff in today's big-money bowl game in Memphis, the question remains of how to balance academic and athletic priorities.

Nationally, the problem has become so large that school officials are no longer looking the other way. Examples of questionable athletic practices range from mild to scurrilous.

A striking example is the now-famous case of Kevin Ross. Mr. Ross played basketball for Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. After 12 years in public schools and four years at Creighton, Kevin Ross still couldn't read.

He enrolled in a preparatory school in Chicago, and studied with children half his age and height. He graduated again last May. He wanted an education, he says. But, he asserts, the university was unresponsive to his needs.

Creighton, for its part, has publicly stated that Ross was offered tutoring help, and the university did pick up the tab for Ross's studies at West Side Prep.

Not all schools violate rules and run athletic sweatshops, and not all sports are involved. Yet in some schools emphasis on athletics has made academics a secondary concern, says Harry Edwards, a specialist in sports sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. College football and basketball players may put in 50 to 60 hours per week practicing, playing, and traveling, he says.

Yet the students are also required, under the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), to carry full academic loads, he says. Such a system produces ''educational mediocrity, and often failure.''

Dr. Edwards, a former college athlete, says blacks are especially hard-hit by this system. The black athlete already has ideological strikes against him, he says, which tend to condemn him to intellectual inferiority.

''This has been tolerated, and institutionally facilitated,'' says Edwards, who has documented cases in some colleges where noblack athletes have graduated.

The NCAA, the nation's biggest college sports organization, governs much of the college-sports arena. Some of its rules were recently strengthened. For instance, freshmen will not be allowed to play unless they have attained certain grades in high school or certain college-entrance test scores. If a university really wants to recruit an athlete who falls below these academic standards, it will have to spend a year bringing him up to par.

After their freshman years, all student athletes will be required to complete at least 24 units toward graduation each year. Right now, there is no requirement that students complete any courses. This rule, Bok says, will change the incentives for the colleges. Rather than keeping athletes from their studies , he says, it will be in the university's interest to see that they stick to the books.

Yet many say that the NCAA's rules are too lax and are not adequately policed. NCAA president John Toner says the organization can regulate some things, such as requiring that students be enrolled for at least 12 hours per semester. Yet, he says, it's enormously difficult to impose fair standards nationwide.

It does seem difficult to find a set of rules that can be applied fairly to huge state universities and exclusive private institutions.

Yet there is the need. Many reforms have been suggested.

Harry Edwards says the athlete should be ''guaranteed'' a five-year scholarship allowing him to continue his education even if he were injured or unable to play. Under current NCAA rules, the athlete must commit himself to the college, but the college needn't commit itself to the athlete. As it is now, Edwards says, there is great pressure for the student to ''earn'' his scholarship each year.

Bok suggests that freshmen be ineligible for play. Then they would have time to prove themselves as students before being introduced to the athletic challenges.

Perhaps colleges should be required to publish the rates of the number of student-athletes they graduate, Bok says. This might ''shame'' them into complying with set standards. He also thinks athletic scholarships should be abolished. And television money could be channeled into innovative educational programs, he says, rather than into inflated athletic programs.

Bok admits that rules and regulations can only go so far. And, given today's enormous pressure on sports programs to excel, they can be circumvented. But without constant vigilance, he says, there's no chance for individual schools to live up to standards.

''College administrators should do everything in our power to keep them honest and decent,'' he says. Only in this way will colleges exploit fewer athletes and maintain standards.

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