Friday, October 05, 2007

Zeros, lots of zeros

There has been a fair amount of buzz regarding the NCAA's release of the GSR or graduation success rate for all college sports programs from 1997-2000. As you've probably already heard Maryland's men's basketball team had a zero percent graduation rate for this time period. Notice I did not say that none of those players graduated. According to the Washington Post three of those players: Tahj Holden, Danny Miller and Matt Slaninka have all graduated but do not count because they either transferred or got their degree after the six year window the NCAA uses. Add those to the calculus and suddenly the numbers look much different. Of the other players on the 2002 national championship team three are making millions in the NBA and another four are playing professional basketball here or overseas some with high six figure salaries. Two other players during the 1997-2000 time frame Terrence Morris and Steve Francis also either played in the NBA or a currently still in the league.

I'm not trying to excuse anything. It is obvious that academics has not been a focus of the coaching staff until recently. The program and the university can and should do better. I think they have made very good progress recently as three seniors graduated last year and two more are on track to graduate this year for a two year rate of over 70%. Keep in mind these numbers are in some cases a decade old. I would make a couple of points in regards to this controversy.

As I think was illustrated in the first paragraph there are more to these numbers than what the NCAA considers. Danny Miller and Matt Slaninka don't count at all according to the NCAA, nor does Tajh Holden. You can hide a boatload of cheating and dishonesty behind a good looking GSR number and the NCAA wouldn't have a clue. Consider these examples:

In 1998 the Texas Tech football program got hit with a major infractions ruling by the NCAA for among other things academic fraud. According to the new GSR report their rate for that time period was 79%, which looks pretty good until you consider what was going on at the time.

In 2006 Ohio State was put on probation for major infractions regarding their basketball team which included academic fraud. Their GSR rate for that same period is listed in the released data as 40%. Not great but much better than Maryland's number. At the same time members of the football team claimed that tests were taken by other students and all manner of other academic fraud was taking place the Buckeyes recorded a 53% GSR score. Consider the cases of All-American Andy Katzenmoyer, 2nd team All-Big Ten guard Ron Murphy and All-Big Ten saftey Damon Moore who all were nearly ineligible in 1998. The got eligible taking embarrassing courses like golf, music appreciation and AIDS awareness.

Florida State's basketball team has a better GSR rate than Duke or North Carolina. You can't get much better than 100% and yet I recall news about an academic cheating scandal broke last week in Tallahassee. So what does that number mean?

Yet given all this people still think these numbers have some legitimacy. The GSR just invites all of us to be liars and hypocrites right along with the NCAA. We can all pretend that these athletes belong on college campuses and that they really are students. Many football and basketball players could care less about getting their college degree, if they did they wouldn't major in things like sports management, "letters and sciences", and sociology. No offense to kids who study those subjects. This is the same system more or less that allowed Dexter Manley to walk off Oklahoma State's campus as an illiterate. The NCAA could get serious about its academic standards if it really wanted to but it would rather continue to give just the appearance of caring about such things.

As an aside it makes me curious as to why the NCAA no longer publishes minor or secondary infractions. This constitutes transparency? What do that have to hide? I'm sure I could find many more questionable GSR scores if I was able to review the entire list of NCAA violators.

Whatever the failures of Gary Williams' program they are not cheating like other schools that have better GSR scores. It may not be laudable but it is at least honest. The NCAA could learn a thing or two about that. In the 18 seasons that Williams has been at Maryland the program has not run afoul of any NCAA infractions while other programs that are obvious rules violators have nice and tidy GSR scores.

But is this really the main responsibility of Gary Williams? His main responsibility, along with every other college coach is to win games. His main focus is the development of his players basketball ability and the continued success of his program. That is the cold truth of college sports. It is a business, big business. It is sad that many people cling to the idea that it is something else. John Bunting ran one of the best football programs in the ACC at North Carolina. His players graduated, rarely got into trouble and in most respects were a credit to the university. Only problem was he didn't win enough for the Tarheel faithful. So despite being an alumnus who was doing things the right way he got canned. Just one example that highlights the formula in big time college sports were winning trumps everything. You don't get your sins washed away because you get a good GSR score.


Williams does have a responsibility to make sure his players behave in the right way and represent the university with honor. Over his tenure I think he has done a very good job of doing those things. It is the responsibility of the university to educate the these students. That is why they are there, or is it? My opinion is that the educational part of the university at Maryland and other places bears the responsibility for these kinds of embarrassments. Where is the criticism of the deans and presidents that allow programs to have poor graduation rates? The university needs to do a better job of providing academic support while the players are on campus and after they have left. The current staff is also doing a better job of bring players into the program that care about going to class in the first place. Coach Williams now has incentives in his contract for academic progress and all signs are that he will meet those guidelines.

Whether you are a Maryland fan or a fan of some other team ask yourself this: If you could win a national title but your graduation rate would be zero would you accept that bargain? The vast majority if they were being honest would say yes to that question. The same college sports fans that howl about graduation rates of their rivals are part of the larger problem, they're just to arrogant to know it.

More about this story:

Gary Williams website statement

Washington Post Article

Baltimore Sun blog by Heather Dinich


Dan Steinberg's DC Sports Bog

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