Commentary

Academic questions for college sports

We should be hearing as much about the 'student' as we do about the 'athlete'

Updated: August 25, 2010, 3:08 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

LittonDrew Litton/ESPN.com Despite expansive resources, college grad rates aren't always better.

Hey, coach, you gotta be excited about the upcoming season. Your starting quarterback is returning behind an experienced front line. What's better than that?!

"Blah. Blah. Blah..."

What about the defense? You lost some speed in the secondary and your linebackers are talented but young. How are you gonna deal with that?

"Blah. Blah. Blah ..."

Finally, coach, are all your players on track to graduate and earn degrees?

"Huh?"

Just once.

Just once I'd like to hear someone ask that question.

Just once I'd like to see one of my colleagues in the print, television, radio or digital sports media break down a program's graduation rates and academic strategy with the same rigor they do offenses, defenses, coaching moves and intriguing early-season matchups.

Just once I'd like to hear a college coach express as much enthusiasm for his players' performance in the classroom as he does their talent, work ethic and performance on the field.

Actually, I'd like to see it more than once. I'd like to see a coach address this every week, just like he breaks down last week's game and next week's opponent.

"Hey guys, I've got some exciting news. Ten of 14 guys taking the history mid-term passed. We've got tutors working with the other four and, as long as they put in the time and the effort, we feel they'll do all right next time and have a passing grade in the spring."

LittonDrew Litton/ESPN.com Should college coaches be as effusive about academic performance as football?

The academic progress of college athletes -- in football, basketball and other sports -- should be a regular talking point in any conversation about college sports, particularly at this time of year, when we're all brimming with anticipation about rankings, big early-season games and potential national champions.

And yet hardly an ounce of ink, a modicum of air time or a byte of digital space -- amid the reams and hours and terabytes used to dissect the upcoming college football season -- has been used to assess how the top teams are doing in fulfilling their promise to provide young athletes with an education.

Oh, sure, we occasionally hear the word "academic" bandied about:
• When an incoming athlete is "academically" ineligible to play.
• When the NCAA threatens to snatch a scholarship or two away during to the program's poor "academic" performance. (How many of those threats were ever carried out?)
• When, on a positive note, an athlete earns "academic" All-America status, or, in the rarest of all instances, becomes a Rhodes Scholar, as did former Florida State (and current Tennessee Titans) defensive back Myron Rolle.

And don't get me wrong.

I love this time of year. It's still summer but fall is in the wind, meaning the first college football kickoffs are all but upon us. Coaches and players are jazzed, and preseason prognosticators are in midyear form. Teams have been dissected like lab frogs. The names of Heisman faves have been all but engraved on the trophy, and the "watch" list of frosh phenoms is filled to its brim.

But we don't have a clue how the players we'll cheer in the fall will fare in the spring when their final grades are released.

I'm not trying to douse the joy of fall, but fans, coaches, administrators and those of us who cover college sports should talk about athletes' academic progress as regularly as we talk about game scores, injuries and scouting reports.

Last week, the Schott Foundation for Public Education released a disturbing report, noting that the 2007-08 high-school graduation rate for African-American males was only 47 percent. That trend continues at the collegiate level, particularly when it comes to athletes.

Earlier this year, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports released its annual study of the academic progress of schools playing in postseason bowls. Of the 68 schools, 58 graduated at least 60 percent of their white players, nearly three times the number of schools with similar success rates for African-American players.

Moreover, 22 schools graduated fewer that 50 percent of their black players, compared with only two schools that failed to graduate at least half of their white players.

Goal CartoonDrew Litton/ESPN.com Will we ever hear coaches speak energetically about grades and graduation?

Also, at the end of each college football season, a group called Higher Ed Watch digests federally reported graduation rates of the teams in the final BCS standings and the NCAA Academic Progress Rates to create the Academic Bowl Championship Series. The group says its goal is to reveal graduation rate disparities between athletes and the general student population, as well as between black and white athletes and students, and to shed light on "general academic performance."

Academically, here's how the AP Top 25 preseason rankings would look, based on the results in last season's ABCS:
1. Penn State
2. Boise State
3. Iowa
4. Ohio State
5. Nebraska
6. Alabama
7. Miami (Fla.)
8. TCU
9. Wisconsin
10. Pittsburgh (tie)
10. Virginia Tech (tie)
12. West Virginia
13. USC
14. LSU
15. Florida
16. Georgia Tech
17. Oregon State
18. Oregon
19. Texas

Only 19 schools? None of the other AP preseason Top 25 squads (Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Carolina, Florida State, Auburn and Georgia) were in the final '10 BCS rankings.

It's also worth noting that Texas was the biggest loser in the '10 ABCS due to its whopping 41 percentage-point gap between the overall student body's graduation rate and that of the Longhorns football players. The difference between the graduation rates of white players and black players? A similarly embarrassing 36 points. Just over 1 in 4 black Longhorns football players graduated, the lowest of any team in the poll and 42 points lower than the overall graduation rate for black students at UT.

Here's another idea: Let's elevate the ABCS to the status of the BCS at the end of the season. Perhaps at halftime of the BCS game, the head coach of the ABCS national champion should be awarded a glitzy crystal trophy just like the one that will be handed to the BCS champion coach at the end of the evening.

Last season, Papa Joe Paterno would have been the recipient.

And, hopefully, the cheers would have been just as loud.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com