By Asim, Jabari
The Crisis , Vol. 113, No. 6
Author Gives University Athletics Failing Grade Air Ball: American Education's Failed Experiment with Elite Athletics by John R. Gerdy (University Press of Mississippi, $28)
Last September, the NCAA released its annual graduation rate for Division I students-athletes and cited an uptick so slight that you might miss it if you blink. The data, based on student-athletes who enrolled from 1996 to 1999, showed that rates rose to 77 percent - a whopping increase of 1 percent compared with the previous year. As might be expected, NCAA president Myles Brand found reason for optimism in the new numbers. "The trend lines are up," he told reporters, "and, with a few exceptions, the academic reforms we are continuing to lay, even in sports like football and basketball, which historically lag, are showing progress."
Coaches in those problematic sports that Brand referred to tend to be a bit more sanguine. "There's not much I can do about it," said Ralph Friedgen, who runs the University of Maryland's football program. "Whether I recruit a kid or not, I try my best to get them to graduate. We've been pretty successful at it. You do everything you possibly can to help them graduate. I don't have any problem looking in the mirror on that one."
Perhaps Friedgen can be so smug because his team has a 64 percent graduation rate, eighth in its conference. Compared with the Maryland basketball team's 18 percent graduation rate, the gridiron warriors look like Rhodes scholars. Such figures are of particular concern to African Americans because most Black student-athletes play basketball and football - and fewer than 40 percent of them actually earn degrees.
None of those numbers impress John R. Gerdy. In his book Air Ball: American Education's Failed Experiment with Elite Athletics, he describes the marriage of highly competitive elite athletics and the educational system as "a uniquely American experiment" and "a failure." It's not just those troublesome graduation rates that he objects to, either. Gerdy has big problems with the wads of cash that enter athletic department coffers by way of generous alumni boosters and television contracts. On top of that, coaches increasingly earn more than university presidents - and that's without counting the money from their sneaker deals.
You could say that young athletes who use up their eligibility and are kicked to the curb without hope of ever earning a degree are sacrificed on the altar of profit, but first you'd have to find evidence of profit. "Only 18 percent of Division I athletics departments generate more revenue than they expend," according to Gerdy. "More than 80 percent [of them] actually lose money."
While the kids are slam-dunking and flying into the end zone, they apparently aren't learning much. Meanwhile, the schools they attend have confused commerce with education. What's to be done? Gerdy calls for "sweeping, systemic change," including dramatically restructuring Division I athletics. "If that proves impossible, eliminate it," he suggests.
Gerdy, associate commissioner for compliance and academic affairs of the Southeastern Conference from 1989 to 1995, has plenty of firsthand familiarity with the territory he covers here. He advocates gathering "all of the disparate strands of reform" and weaving them into "a coherent vision and logical plan for action."
While Gerdy's logic in Air Ball is often largely unassailable, coherence seems beyond his reach. …