Athletics must stress academics

For many student athletes, especially those in high profile sports, college life comes with many advantages unavailable to the ordinary, Gopher-cheering student. Scholarships pay for much, if not all, of school. The University offers preferential treatment in housing policies. The athletics department provides access to tutors and study resources that dwarf those committed to the general student population. Still, men’s basketball and football are graduating their players at abysmal rates. According to an NCAA report released last week, a miserable 9 percent of men’s basketball players, enrolled between 1992-93 and 1995-96, graduated. The numbers are better on the gridiron, but still low. Only 44 percent of football players graduated during the period. Although there have been many changes in athletics since the period studied, the rates should be counted among the growing body of evidence that big-time college sports have run amok, and embolden University leaders to take hefty steps toward reform.

To be sure, athletics are a great source of pride on campus. Last year’s men’s hockey, wrestling and golf championships gave a much-needed boost to school spirit. And, to be fair, student-athletes, on the whole, graduate at a higher rate than the general student population. However, in major sports there is increasing pressure to win. And that pressure is compromising some of the University’s larger goals. To win, coaches seek the top recruits by building lavish facilities and often compromising admissions standards. This system, termed by some as the athletics “arms race,” is putting a serious strain on the University’s budget and shifting much-needed resources from ordinary students. On the heels of major scandals, it is also adding to cynicism and eroding the public trust that is essential at the Legislature. At this point, the University, more than ever, needs to be clear in its message to the state. Focusing too much on athletics, amid scandals and such low graduation rates, clouds that message.

While the University has made some welcome steps in the direction of reform, such as a moratorium on facilities construction and a plan to wean athletics off of University subsidy, further changes are needed. Improving graduation rates should be among the top priorities. The new athletics director Joel Maturi has stressed his commitment to improving the rates. It is important that he see it through, and back up the commitment even when a team is losing. Indiana University President Myles Brand put it well last year when he said that universities must view themselves first as “academic institutions, not as sports franchises.” The University should take that statement to heart, and demand better from its athletics department.