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Panel Discusses Exploitation, Academic

Panel Discusses Exploitation, Academic
Prejudice Against Student-Athletes

Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics wrestles with solutions at Washington summit.
By Frank J. Matthews and Ikenna Ofobike

When a professional sports team loses a player in the middle of the season, it’s almost always because the player has suffered a severe injury. College athletes, however, can find themselves on the bench for missing or failing a class as easily as they can from a broken leg.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, established in 1989 to recommend a reform agenda that emphasized the academic side of the student-athlete, cannot prevent the physical injuries.

But the commission recently convened a group of higher education leaders, coaches, journalists and current and former student-athletes to address a range of the other issues often encountered by student-athletes, including the use of performance-enhancing drugs, violence and gambling. But the conversation at the commission’s Summit on Collegiate Athlete Experience, held at George Washington University, often returned to the themes of academic performance and an increasingly professional atmosphere, at least for the big-money sports.

“These students are basically working two jobs when they play a major sport,” said Kareem McKenzie, who played football at Penn State University from 1997-2000, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He is currently a starting offensive tackle for the NFL’s New York Giants franchise. “They have a full schedule of 16 credit hours and then they participate in collegiate sports. It’s a hard and long day.
It’s something that I didn’t understand when I first went to school.”

It is the all-or-nothing mentality that pervades sports like football and men’s basketball that worries McKenzie. He says many student-athletes enter college expecting to move on to the next level, not realizing the improbable odds of making it big, or the risks involved. He notes that the average NFL career is only 3.3 years long, and there are only about 1,800 players in the league. But more than 1,000 student-athletes sign up for the NFL Draft every year, many of underclassmen. Only 255 players are drafted each year in the NFL. This year, 47 underclassmen made themselves eligible for the draft. If they aren’t drafted, they don’t have the option of returning to play college football next year.

Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, along with other panelists, said the lure of enormous profits for the institutions often leads them to turn a relatively blind eye to the exploitation of student-athletes. It’s an oft-repeated phrase in the college athletics community that the only truly unforgivable sin is losing.

Roby, a former executive at Reebok, coached men’s basketball at Harvard University and noted that Ivy League institutions have largely escaped the problems that dog other universities.

“The Ivy League decided a long time ago that they were not going to give in to the issues and pressures,” he said. “They would not offer any athletic scholarships and decided to recruit people based on their academic qualifications as well as their athletic abilities.”

The Knight Commission’s goal is to help all athletic departments mirror the academic focus of Ivy League institutions. Over the years, many of the commission’s recommendations have been adopted into NCAA regulations.

“The increased role of college presidents was one of the first major recommendations that we made that was adopted,” says Dr. Clifton R. Wharton Jr., vice chairman of the commission. “More recently we’ve been pushing very hard to see to it that those universities that aren’t graduating their athletes properly not be allowed to participate in bowl games and other postseason activities. That was very important.”

The NCAA recently released a sport-by-sport breakdown
of the graduation rates for student-athletes. According
to the report, colleges and universities between 1995 and 2001 graduated 59 percent of their Black athletes. During that same period, 76 percent of White athletes earned degrees. Most experts agree that while the gap remains significant, it does represent improvement, suggesting that universities are taking steps to keep student-athletes in good academic standing.

— Frank L. Matthews contributed to this report.

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