Commentary

Athletes Deserve 'Informed Choice'

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The purity of experience and the immediate gratification of an athletic contest are rarely matched outside the sporting arena. Sports create stars who capture the limelight for a day, a week, a season, or even a career. Some players become metaphors for the meaning of excellence.

Amateur athletics understandably encourage in young people the dream of a professional sports career and with it, fame and wealth. But for most amateur athletes, that dream will never be realized.

Too many students sacrifice academic achievement to the fantasy of a life in professional sports. It is a national shame.

Only one in 10,000 high-school athletes ever consummates such aspirations. And those who do can look forward to a career that averages only four years. Having forfeited their education, even the most successful college athletes often face a life of uncertainty before their 30th birthday.

Bad habits often begin early. Too many high-school athletes dream more than they study. And caught up in press hype and the excitement of fans, coaches and schools neglect the educational needs of young people.

The result is academic irresponsibility. An estimated 25 percent of the nation's high-school-senior football and basketball players are functionally illiterate.

And only one out of every 100 high-school athletes will receive a scholarship to play at one of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I schools. Most of those lucky few can expect a pressure-packed environment where the demands of academics and athletics collide.

Indeed, single-minded devotion to athletics among our nation's schools and colleges frequently leads to exploitation and abuse of young athletes. Many college coaches peddle dreams of "the big time" to the high-school students they are recruiting.

Often, games are won and lost as much in the homes of recruits as on the field or the court, and coaches who don't win don't last very long. Many of the recruiters will talk about how much they care about the academic life of their athletes, but not all will mean what they say.

Once students have arrived on campus, coaches may discourage particular courses and majors because their demands could weaken players' commitment to sports. Less challenging schedules also make it easier for athletes to obtain the grades required for continued athletic eligibility.

Some colleges do an outstanding job of helping young people balance their academic and athletic commitments. While a few of their students may make it to the pros, nearly all will graduate. They leave school with not only the memories of a great athletic career, but also an education that gives them a future.

But too often the result after four years is tragic for the young athlete. With eligibility and scholarship exhausted and the dream of a professional career shattered, he is unable to graduate. The future that beckons is full of disappointment.

It should not end this way. With the proper balance between academics and athlet6ics, sports can provide the means to an education that might otherwise be unattainable.

To help create an environment where a young person can have a realistic opportunity to be both a student and an athlete, I and two colleagues--Representatives Ed Towns of New York and Tom McMillan of Maryland--have introduced "the student-athlete right to know act." This legislation requires colleges and universities receiving federal financial assistance to make public detailed information about the graduation rates of student athletes.

Annual reports to the Secretary of Education would break down by sport, race, and sex not only graduation rates but also the average time taken to earn a degree.

The Education Department would then publish this information both for individual schools and--in aggregate form--for athletic conferences recognized by the ncaa and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Colleges would also be required to provide this material to high-school students they are recruiting as athletic-scholarship candidates.

Such information would help high-school athletes and their families make an informed judgment about the general character of the education they can expect to receive at the colleges under consideration.

As they sort through scholarship offers, young athletes and their parents want to know which schools make a commitment to the academic lives of their students. The graduation rate for students who enter a particular school on an athletic scholarship provides a good indication--especially if data for each sport are available, and if they reveal whether students are following a range of academic interests or are funneled through one or two hopelessly easy majors.

Despite the importance of such information for students' decisions about their future, most coaches presently cannot or will not provide these basic statistics.

Unfortunately, critics of the bill have paraded out a list of petty objections about the burden of paperwork and assertions that the problem is confined to a small percentage of "big time" colleges.

The reality is that we do not know how big the problem is: Without figures, it is impossible to determine whether the problem is indeed confined to a small number of schools.

Sadly, the ncaa already collects a large portion of this information but does not release it. When Representatives Towns and McMillan and I asked the association to do so, it refused.

Some opponents of the bill say that higher education should police itself. Though I agree such an approach would be ideal, colleges have thus far proven that they are not up to the job.

Those who argue that government should not be involved in such matters doubtlessly forget that the ncaa was established at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed that college athletics had to be regulated. Unfortunately, it seems the watchdog has been co-opted by those it was assigned to watch.

The "student-athlete right to know act" will aid our nation's young people as they make their decisions about schools. An informed choice will greatly improve their chances of receiving a sound education and a college degree. For most students, those are much more realistic and valuable rewards than dreams of a professional sports career.

Vol. 8, Issue 1, Page 45

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