By Patrick F. Cannon
My alma mater, Northwestern University, was chosen this year to participate in the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time in its history. Then, to add icing to the cake, they won their first game. They gamely lost their second game to the number one seed, Gonzaga, whose only prior claim to fame was its most famous attendee, Bing Crosby. This came just after an even more momentous event: the first World Series victory by the Chicago Cubs since 1908.
As any sports fan knows, these highs are to be cherished because, alas, history tells us that they will not last. For the young men who played for Northwestern, the education they receive in return for their hard work, will last. Although the numbers can fluctuate from year to year, nearly 100 percent of Northwestern’s basketball and football players will graduate.
I saw another statistic about Northwestern recently. Someone went to the trouble to look at all the Illinois high school athletes who had received football scholarships, and determined that only 12 percent could have been admitted to Northwestern.
I don’t mean to suggest that Northwestern is unique in graduating its athletes. Duke University, for example, graduates a high percentage of its athletes, but it also indulges in a practice for its basketball team that has become known as “one and done.” It does this to take advantage of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) policy of not drafting or employing players unless they have attended college for one year or simply sat out for a year after graduating from high school. To take advantage of this absurd policy, Duke and other “basketball schools” (Kentucky comes to mind) knowingly recruit players who they know in advance will stay only for the mandatory year, then opt for the draft.
Most of these young men are African-Americans. The most talented among them have been groomed since their skills first became apparent by coaches, family, street agents and other assorted hangers on, who all hope to get their share when their protégé signs that big contract. They all conspire to keep their charges just eligible enough academically to get accepted to a major college, which in turn strives in turn to keep the young man eligible for that one year. Courses designed to do just that are readily available.
Chicagoans will be familiar with the case of Derrick Rose. He was a “one and done” with the University of Memphis. In 2007-08, he led the team to the NCAA championship game, which they lost to Kansas. It was later discovered that someone else had taken Rose’s SAT test, and Memphis was required to vacate the entire season by the NCAA. By then, Rose had signed a lucrative contract with the Chicago Bulls, unconcerned that his cheating had cost Memphis so dearly (an unconcern that seemed to extend to almost everything in his career).
Fortunately, the graduation rate for African-American athletes is increasing, if still below that of other ethnicities. But the reality is that the very best of them will always be under pressure to take the money and forget the education. I happen to think it’s a bad bargain, since so few actually make it or have long careers. In the end, though, it’s their decision.
To me, the true hypocrisy is dual: the NBA for its senseless policy of not permitting high school graduates from going directly to the NBA; and our universities for hiring athletes rather than educating students.
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon