SBJ/July 30 - August 5, 2001/Opinion

Knight report missed many chances

My father, Joe Lapchick, was the top-paid player, college coach and pro coach for 50 years and an inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In 20 years as a college coach, winning the equivalent of four national championships, he cumulatively earned less than what any top-20 coach today gets annually for a shoe contract. Cumulatively!

There is no doubt that college sport has become big business, just as professional sport has grown exponentially in terms of dollars.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics recently issued its final report in its second incarnation. Its focus is on the seemingly irreconcilable difference between the commercialization of college sport and the goal to achieve integrity in college sport.

In the context of the conflict between money and integrity, the Knight Commission addressed low graduation rates in a proposal that would ban schools from postseason play or conference championships if the team graduation rate fell below 50 percent. The commission had to know that such a proposal would never be accepted by the NCAA.

Graduation rates have generally increased across the board, even in the revenue sports of basketball and football. In spite of a recent erosion of the graduation rate in men's college basketball, the rates are up significantly over the last 15 years when it was estimated that 27 percent of Division I basketball players and 30 percent of Division I-A football players graduated. Most recent estimates are that 53 percent of white male and 37 percent of African-American male Division I basketball players graduate.

The graduation rate for African-American male student athletes as a whole is 42 percent, compared to 33 percent for African-American male non-athletes. The graduation rate for African-American athletes hovered around 20 percent in 1985. That improvement being noteworthy, it is still daunting to recognize that in Emerge Magazine's last survey of the 2000 basketball season, there were 50 colleges that had not graduated a single African-American athlete in a six-year period. This is what scandals are made of.

While the likelihood is that a 50 percent benchmark will not be accepted, perhaps the Knight Commission launched a rocket in order to gain ground with alternate proposals. One proposal that has been on the table for many years is that a school will lose a scholarship in direct proportion to the number of athletes who do not graduate in their sport. Thus, if a school failed to graduate two of its basketball players by the time their eligibility expired, they would lose two basketball scholarships. While this was considered an unacceptable proposal by many in college sport when it was first made, perhaps it would be more acceptable now with the weight of the data pointing to the persistent scandal of graduation rates at some institutions.

As far as the commercialization of sport, the Knight Commission's proposal to ban corporate logos on athletic uniforms falls short of a more serious problem that the Knight Commission failed to address. While we can decry the commercialization of sport, which I do along with others, I can go into any symphony hall or opera company and see corporate logos all over the lobbies and in programs. The question is how that corporate influence is used in college athletic departments. That is directly related to the integrity of the individual coaches and athletic director on each campus.

I think the Knight Commission would have had a tremendous impact if it instead addressed the issue of colleges accepting money from corporations that do not conform to stringent codes of conduct on the issue of "sweatshop labor." Some colleges do an outstanding job in avoiding those companies that allow dangerous production standards and exploit wages, keeping workers wallowing in poverty in countries like Indonesia, China and Vietnam where many sporting goods are made. The Knight Commission missed an opportunity to weigh in on what has become the biggest and most active student movement on college campuses in the last decade. Students protesting sweatshop conditions bring great hope that this generation of students still has an activist streak that will address issues of social injustice.

The Knight Commission has some of the most important leaders in higher education as members. There are men and women who have devoted their lives to making higher education and college sport live by the rules to promote the true values of higher education.

Their report, although not perfect, has brought attention to several critical issues. I am grateful for their work and wish that the report serves as a wake-up call to the stewards of college sport. I know that Ced Dempsey, president of the NCAA and himself a member of the Knight Commission, welcomes any opportunity to strengthen his efforts to make college sport live up to its ideals. This may be the real value of the report.

Richard E. Lapchick is director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

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