Academic Standards for Athletes: A Debate in Black and White

Article excerpt

Academic Standards For Athletes: A Debate in Black and White.

The issue of higher academic standards for athletes has, unfortunately, widened the already huge chasm between the races. Because standardized achievement tests have been a major part of all three attempts by the NCAA to implement higher standards, the emotional debate will only get more intense.

For decades, athletes have been viewed as "dumb jocks." That sign of contempt was even more frequently attached to Blacks. Athletes aren't expected to be as smart as other students with lesser physical gifts but bigger brains. Jokes are made about bad grades, frequently in an attempt to mask the pain.

Media exposure of low graduation rates was followed by a public outcry and threats of intervention by the Congress. Old sports names like Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) and U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen (D-MD) and non-sports names like Reps. John Conyers, Ed Townes and Cardiss Collins were regulars on our sports pages. It all led to a movement for higher academic standards by the colleges and, increasingly, by high schools.

The reform movement was helped along by embarrassed and enlightened college presidents. In 1983, the NCAA passed Proposition 48. Developed under the leadership of the Presidents Commission, Prop 48 was designed to create new eligibility standards for incoming freshmen.

Under Prop 48, an incoming college freshman, in order to be eligible to play a sport in the first year at any NCAA Div. I or I-A program, had to (1) maintain a "C" high school average in 11 core curriculum courses, and (2) score above a 700 on the combined verbal and math sections of the Scholastic Aptitude Test or a 15 on the American College Test. The new standards only referred to the athlete's academic record in high school.

The core curriculum and grade-point standards won widespread approval. However, the requirement for minimum standardized test scores angered Black educators and civil rights leaders. Many educators agreed that standardized achievement tests are culturally and racially biased. Black leaders charged that Prop 48 would limit Blacks' opportunities to obtain college athletic scholarships.

The NCAA conducted an analysis prior to implementation which seemed to bear out that fear. The study looked at entering freshmen in 1981. It showed that 86 percent of Black players in men's basketball and 75 percent of Black players in men's football at the nation's largest schools would have been ineligible as freshmen. At the same time, 33 percent of white players in men's basketball and 50 percent of white players in men's football would have been ineligible.

Nevertheless, when implemented in the fall of 1986, Prop 48 actually sidelined far fewer athletes. According to NCAA figures, only 10.3 percent of football players and 11.35 percent of basketball players overall had to sit out in 1980-90. While the earlier NCAA study predicted that more than 80 percent of Black athletes would be ineligible, 16 percent were actually ineligible in 1989-90. In previous years, the results were even better.

While Prop 48 continued to have a disproportionately heavier impact on Blacks (about 65 percent of all Proposition 48 admissions between 1986-87 and 1989-90), the percentage of Black athletes who failed to meet Prop 48 requirements is about one-fifth the number predicted in the NCAA study. The predictions of academic disaster proved wrong; student-athletes, Black and white alike, have convincingly met the new standards.

Although reluctant at first, I now support Proposition 48. However, I still agree with the concern of educators and civil-rights leaders who believe scores on standardized tests are not effective measures of the academic potential of all students.

But the presidents were apparently not satisfied and helped pass Proposition 42 at the 1989 NCAA convention. The reignited the fiery debate about Prop 48. The new proposition, combined with the standards established by Prop 48, would have meant that someone who did not qualify could not receive an athletic scholarship in the first year. …