SBJ/20090615/Opinion

A few ways to deal with the square pegs of academia

Is the bloom off Derrick Rose? The Chicago Bulls star has been under scrutiny after being accused of various transgressions that may have helped land him at the University of Memphis. But even if he’s guilty, it is not his fault. If, in the end, the system — and that means all of us — corrupted an 18-year-old kid who wanted nothing more than to play basketball for himself and his family, who is really to blame?

Rose is an outlier, one of those talented aberrations defined by social observer Malcolm Gladwell. He was gifted with an athletic body, then devoted his whole life to pursuing his basketball passion, which means he spent thousands of hours playing and practicing, honing his skills to do one thing: make a living playing a sport better than almost everyone in the world. But in so doing, he became a square peg in the round hole of academia.

Public allegations now suggest that someone manipulated Rose’s grade transcript from Chicago’s Simeon Academy, paid cash to his brother, and/or assumed Rose’s identity and took the SAT college admissions test for him. Rose might have been a participant or bystander in some or all of this, but clearly others were manipulating the strings. Students rarely have access to their own official high school transcripts, and money to his brother may or may not have been his doing. I’ve seen uncles, aunts, brothers, and deadbeat fathers all try to extort money from agents and others on the promise of “delivering” a talented kid.

Chicago’s Derrick Rose is under scrutiny after
allegations of grade and test score tampering.

Was Rose complicit in any deception for his SAT test? It would be hard to argue complete innocence on that one, yet I have also seen the system close up: Student athletes are repeatedly told “Don’t worry, this is how it works,” so they don’t worry, they trust the adults around them and they get manipulated.

So should Rose get off scot-free? Yes, unless the facts reveal that he is a hardened criminal manipulator of mice, men and ivory institutions, which hardly seems likely. Clearly the system does not work, but what “system” are we talking about?

NBA rules require high school graduates to wait a year before being eligible to play. This was implemented after the NBA got burned by too many high school kids with poor talent and/or a woeful lack of maturity. The NBA did this not for the kids but for itself, but it is not an unreasonable rule. Moreover, it works well for the NBA by weeding out potential busts. But the problem remains: Where do these young outlier athletes go?

Without the NBA, Rose could have sat out a year (a ridiculous option), gone to Europe to play pro ball (and become an 18-year-old kid exiled to a foreign land away from his family), or let the system manipulate him. The last option was the only one that could work for a kid like Rose. Shame on us.

The problem is not the NBA or Rose; it lies with the university institutions that cannot control themselves, manipulating the situation while pretending to promote lofty principles of education, character … and national ratings. It is a messy problem, but there is one half-baked solution that could work just well enough.

First, forget high school grades; they are a joke for almost every star athlete. Second, require scholarship athletes to demonstrate real admission test scores with special test sessions administered in a way to minimize fraudulent results. Third, place a minimum floor on these legitimate test scores, perhaps 5 percent below the mid-range of the bottom quartile at the admitting university. All colleges promote higher admission test scores, so this will avoid institutional manipulation. No school would accept an entire freshman class of inferior students just to land the next Rose, and no school could get anywhere with fabricating high school grades or trying to fake the test scores.

It doesn’t solve everything — rogue schools could still pay off families — but this would make every university act more like Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Harvard: Just take kids who remotely belong there. Rose might have ended up at a lesser “name” school, but that’s the breaks. Better than breaking the entire university system to accommodate one square peg.

Eldon L. Ham is an adjunct professor of sports, law and society at Chicago-Kent College of Law and has worked with or represented numerous agents and athletes.

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