Hypocrisy 101

Dan Wetzel

Down in Florida, Dr. Richard Lapchick rails against the pathetic graduation rates for players who compete in the NCAA tournament – barely more than 50 percent for African Americans, according to his latest study. It's far worse when you consider the players on just the good teams.

Up in Ann Arbor, Mich., a stinging four-day newspaper investigation shows that one of college sports supposed academic bastions, Michigan football, might turn out decent graduation numbers but might be doing it by institutionally steering players to easy majors and sympathetic professors. You might get a diploma, but do you get an education?

Out in Omaha, Neb., the NCAA prepares for the first round of its billion-dollar men's basketball tournament with a marquee prime-time game featuring two freshmen – Southern California's O.J. Mayo and Kansas State's Michael Beasley – who are unlikely to finish the semester, let alone their degrees any time soon.

They are only serving out their college purgatory because back in New York, NBA commissioner David Stern says they have to. If Stern has his way, it soon will be two-year college tours for all future phenoms. College administrators will celebrate; keeping the money train going is well worth playing the fool.

Talk about your March Madness – one part playing basketball, one part playing charades.

It isn't so much that all of the above is happening, it is that over the next three weeks so many people will either pretend it isn't or ignore that it is. It's that universities will make small fortunes while bastardizing everything they pay lip service to being about.

Obviously few people care. Most fans just want to watch the action. The diehards convince themselves their school is different. The administrators just want to keep the alumni happy. The coaches are rich. The television networks richer.

And too few of the players even grasp the golden educational opportunity handed to them.

All of this would be fine if it weren't for the endless claims to the contrary, the syrupy coverage of the purity of college sports and the forever apologists when the truth occasionally is exposed.

Remember the feel-good story of the 2002 national champion Maryland Terrapins? Turns out, according to NCAA and federal government stats, none of the starters or top reserves graduated. None. In fact, no recruit brought in from 1997 to 2000 has graduated. The Terps' current graduation rate is zero.

Maryland's counterargument is that some of those guys are playing pro ball, so what does it matter? Indeed, it doesn't matter. A college degree isn't everything. If none of the particulars care, why should we?

But "what does it matter" wasn't what the NCAA was selling the public six years ago. You didn't hear anyone admit that Maryland won the college title with a bunch of kids unlikely to graduate from college.

So will you believe in the champion this time? Lapchick's most recent report noted that of the four No. 1 seeds, only North Carolina graduates more than even half its players, which doesn't exactly reassure you that history won't repeat itself.

In Maryland's defense, maybe a zero graduation rate is more respectable and honest than a high one? Michigan football has been held up for decades as an example of integrity with a graduation rate of about 70 percent.

But how much of that was the result of the institutional steering of athletes into easy majors?

Over the past seven months the Ann Arbor News did what too few media outlets will – especially in college towns where publishers and editors are so often compromised by country club relationships. When former Michigan quarterback and current Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh made critical statements about the Wolverines' academics rather than just repeat the party line, they took a long, hard look.

The result has been fascinating not because Michigan has been exposed as the worst cheater in the world. It hasn't. Rather, the stories have cut open the underbelly of college athletics and showed how things really get done in major college sports.

In this case it means the vast majority of football players appear to be pushed into majoring in "general studies." That includes 16 of 17 scholarship players in the recent Chad Henne/Mike Hart class.

Michigan athletes make up only three percent of undergraduate students but 49 percent of general studies majors. Athletes used to overwhelm the kinesiology department until 2003, when fed up kinesiology professors decided to strengthen the course work. Immediately the athletes shifted, en masse, to general studies, in which the News shows an athlete easily can maintain eligibility through potentially cake courses.

You have to be a myopic Wolverine fan not to acknowledge the truth – this can't all be a coincidence. It isn't cause for disbanding the team, but it certainly isn't what the program claimed to be. That the same thing is happening everywhere (this is quite similar to a recent New York Times exposé of Auburn) is certainly noteworthy but not really much of an excuse.

If the Michigan players don't take advantage of a world-class education, that's their own fault. But if it's the academic advisors of the football program betraying them by systematically pushing empty eligibility, then the shame is on U of M, too.

But that's college athletics, one big circle of situational ethics.

So now Thursday we get Mayo and Beasley, their last stop before the NBA draft, the two of them stuck in this netherworld of pretending to really care about attending college.

This isn't to blame them. They're just playing the part the system says they must. While we're sure each found something positive during his brief time on campus, neither would be here if he didn't have to be.

They are in this tournament because Stern wants the NCAA to market his would-be rookies with saccharine stories from academia, the NCAA wants to make big money off them regardless of the hypocrisy and CBS is more than willing to placate both parties while selling ads to Chevy.

All the adults gladly will play charades so we can watch these kids play ball.

Dan Wetzel is the co-author of Glory Road, the story of coach Don Haskins and the history-making 1966 Texas Western Miners.