Everyone knows the scenario: A teenager, usually black, shows great talent in sports. He comes from a low social and economic level; he makes barely passing grades in high school. Given an athletic scholarship, he goes on to college. There his skills are exploited. He rarely earns a bachelor's degree. When his years of eligibility expire, the college dumps him onto Skid Row. The dumb jock is lucky if he can read the ads for help wanted.
This is the conventional wisdom. Is it valid? The answer is yes and no, but mostly no. In a publication just released by the Department of Education, Clifford Adelman takes a critical look at college athletes and finds them not so abused after all.Adelman is a senior associate in the department's Office of Research. In this paper he works from voluminous data on 8,100 students in the high school class of 1972. About a thousand of them participated in some form of college athletics or performing arts.
Some aspects of the popular image are quite true. Relatively few varsity athletes come from high-income white families. White youths tend to go out for intramural tennis, golf and track. Varsity athletes have the lowest academic records in high school; because of poor preparation they make significantly lower scores on standard aptitude tests; roughly a third of them must take remedial math and English in college.
The scenario loses validity on the matter of graduation. Varsity athletes, as a group, complete their bachelor's degree requirements "at only a slightly lower rate than anyone else." Blacks who make a university's football or basketball team win degrees at double the rate for black non-athletes.
Adelman adds a footnote: Varsity players may complete their degrees at a respectable rate, "but it takes them longer to do so than other groups, their grades are lower, and their curricula are, to put it mildly, less demanding along the way."
What happens to those who win their college letters on the gridiron or the basketball court? The Skid Row scenario is not the norm: "At least in the first decade of their work lives, ex-varsity football and basketball players do very well economically." They experience less unemployment than their peers, and their average annual earnings "were comfortably above the mean for students who attended four-year colleges. "
The release of Adelman's study coincides with an article in The Wall Street Journal by William F. Shughart, a professor of economics at the University of Mississippi. He makes the point that colleges treat athletes in one way and other "performing artists" in another.
For example, a music major gets academic credit for the hours spent in practice. The same thing is true of drama majors. Shughart asks a reasonable question: "Why should academic credit be given for practicing the violin, but not for practicing a three-point shot?"
To get around this situation he recommends that colleges and universities create four-year programs leading to baccalaureate degrees in football and basketball. I would ask, Why not? Matching a degree as bachelor of fine arts would be a degree as bachelor of physical arts.
Shughart would also extend athletic scholarships from four years to six years, in order to make up for the lectures and exams that lettermen miss because of team training.
My own idea is to treat teams as semi-professional farm clubs for the major football, baseball and basketball leagues. This isn't exactly the function of a university, but it would have the virtue of eliminating the academic hypocrisy that now prevails.