March sadness

April 9th, 2014



Want me to let you in on one of the worst kept secrets in sports?


NCAA Division I men’s basketball is a joke.


Before you start throwing tomatoes at me, hear me out.


In terms of postseason play, NCAA Division I men’s basketball is second to none. March Madness is one of the most exciting times of the year, as the tournament draws in all kinds of fans. Predicting who will emerge from the 68-team field as the national champion, and which upsets will occur along the way, is next to impossible.


Very few foresaw the University of Connecticut winning the national championship.


But in terms of maintaining the integrity of college athletics, NCAA Division I men’s basketball fails miserably for two reasons.


First off, academics barely factor into the equation.


Eight teams in the NCAA Tournament had Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores below the NCAA-mandated score of 930, meaning that these eight programs graduate less than 50 percent of their players. APR is the NCAA’s official way of judging a team’s academic standing.


UConn was one of the worst last season, recording an APR of just 892. The Huskies sat out last season’s postseason for this very reason.


I give UConn some credit. Head coach Kevin Ollie has changed the attitude within the program, and “adamantly” told the AP in October that UConn’s APR score will be a perfect 1,000 for the 2013-14 season. The official results will not be released until May, but UConn appears to making at least some progress.


But, let’s discard the thought of APR for a moment. Consider this: UConn, as a school, has an overall six-year graduation rate of 82 percent, as measured by the National Center for Education Statistics. However, the Huskies as a team have a graduation rate of just eight percent.


Eight percent. This is simply unacceptable.


The NCAA’s “Who We Are” page on its website states: “We support learning through sports by integrating athletics and higher education to enrich the college experience of student-athletes.” This is a gross overstatement as it pertains to NCAA Division I men’s basketball, where time and time again, the NCAA has pursued money over learning and higher education.


While some sanctions have been taken against errant programs, they have been too little and too late. An “athlete-first, student-second” culture has been established, and this will not be easy to change.


The second reason for the NCAA’s failure is its “one-and-done” policy.


After only one year at the Division I level, men’s basketball stars can bolt to the NBA for a big paycheck. The other major NCAA sport, football, forces its players to stay in school for at least three years.


As a result of this rule, schools become nothing but a turnstile for young players looking for a ticket to the NBA.


Many will respond to my argument with a simple phrase used far too often, “Not everyone is meant for college.”


Without a doubt, this is true. But riddle me this: How fair is it that athletes with little academic ability receive full rides to attend college, while smarter students are forced to pay their own way and, many times, must take on a mountain of debt to obtain a college degree?


Sure, I might be a little jealous. It would be awesome if I was 6 feet 5 inches tall and could shoot three-pointers at will. Regardless of my point of view, it’s obvious that there is a problem here.


The scary part is that no solution is in sight.


New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wants to raise the minimum age in the NBA to 20, in order to force college basketball players to stay in school for another year, but he won’t be able to do so until 2017.


The NCAA doesn’t want to change the current rule. Why would they? Schools save money on scholarships when players leave early for the NBA.


NCAA president Mark Emmert has enough to deal with. He has a huge headache on his hands with the unionization case at Northwestern University, especially since the National Labor Relations Board deemed Northwestern’s football players as employees, not amateur athletes. Unionization could eventually kill the NCAA. Heck, I could write an entire column on the idea, but I will refrain for now.


So what can be done to fix NCAA Division I men’s basketball? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I do believe that programs with awful APR scores and worse graduation rates should be sanctioned with greater punishments.  Beyond that, I don’t really know.


What I do know is this: NCAA Division I men’s basketball is broken, and its future is murky at best.