'March Madness' doesn't make the grade

By the NCAA's own scorecard, about half the players of the men's top college basketball teams in this spring's final games are failing students. That reflects badly on their schools, but hey, the schools prefer revenues from this TV sports entertainment.

The "March Madness" tournament of the National Collegiate Athletic Association brings in billions in TV rights and other moneymaking ventures for its member universities and colleges. Some coaches now command multimillion-dollar contracts. Many schools compete almost as in an arms race to build expensive stadiums, along with other sport facilities, to reach the commercial standards of a pro team - all to feed the rising, money-driven intensity in the most popular NCAA games (men's football and basketball).

And the players? With pressure to win for the sake of raising revenue, these amateurs often find it more difficult to keep up their studies - even with the aid of costly, traveling tutors provided by their schools or despite sometimes being offered easy majors and "friendly" faculty.

The NCAA's commercial orientation and the immoderate spending on sports by colleges also have rightly raised questions in Congress about the nonprofit tax status of colleges and universities that receive billions in sports revenue - not to mention taxpayers' money.

Balancing academics and sports is hardly a new issue in higher ed. But the NCAA itself, with its 350,000 student-athletes and a mandate to govern college sports competition, finally realized that its expanding money empire was damaging the primary purpose of its 1,250-member institutions: education.

This year, the NCAA began to slap minor punishment - withholding some scholarships - on a few teams that failed to graduate roughly half the members of any given team. It's using a loose and complicated measuring system called Academic Progress Rate.

The APR is a welcome step but it's only a brick shot. Weak penalties may not bring much reform, and this academic scorecard doesn't give a full picture of how a school is failing each student athlete. More information is needed to put a spotlight on where each institution needs to improve.

Faculty senates must demand better academic measurement of the NCAA to ensure school standards are not corrupted by the lure of NCAA revenue. That's especially true at smaller schools which try hard to win NCAA tournaments but may spend too much or compromise academic standards.

Universities, particularly state-supported ones, should not be taking money from academic programs to subsidize intercollegiate sports, especially to build stadiums that may not pay for themselves if their teams prove not to be winners over time.

Colleges also need to guard against the practice of recruiting students not ready for higher education. They might also revive the old practice of keeping freshman out of intercollegiate sports to give them a good start on their academics.

NCAA sports should be business-like but not a business for schools. They must remain one part of a total educational experience, and not a reason for revenue.

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