College Sports and Standards Debated Again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Readers of the sports page are treated every year to stories that might be filed under the heading Agonies of the SAT.

Star athletes are described grappling with the Scholastic Aptitude Test, not as a commentary on public education or the athlete's lack of attention to the books, but as a social and athletic melodrama: The Superstar's dream blocked by The Test.

The reader is kept current on the first, second and third attempts, the remedial and tutorial measures taken and the resulting success or failure. The extraordinary invasion of privacy appears to be justified as an indignity to be expected by future millionaires.

The stories appear as a result of minimal standards adopted in the best interests of the athlete, the sport and the nation's universities. It is a commentary on the state of basketball today that reforms should appear in the guise of humiliation for teen-agers.

And the confusion has taken another turn. It is time now for the coaches and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to endure another round of embarrassing debate and discussion.

The NCAA and its Presidents Commission are pushing the current minimal standards higher. Already, a player must post a C average on 13 core courses and score 700 on the SATs. (Players with lower scores can be admitted to college, but cannot play as freshmen, and must show acceptable grades before becoming eligible for athletic scholarships.)

The new standards will be on a sliding scale: if the player has only a 2.0 (C average), he must hit 900 on the SATs. With a 2.5 GPA, he needs only 700 on the SAT to qualify.

Nationally last year, blacks averaged 741 on the SAT, while whites averaged 938, according to the Educational Testing Service, which administers the tests. The SAT is scored on a scale ranging from 400 to 1,600.

While some say the new approach shows more flexibility, the nation's black basketball coaches are furious. They say the ratcheting up of arbitrary standards continues to deny opportunity to black athletes, shrinks the talent pool and diminishes the value of the product, college basketball.

Led by the charismatic and commanding John Thompson of Georgetown, the national Black Coaches' Association took its concerns to Capitol Hill. They met with Maryland Congressman Kweisi Mfume, head of the Black Caucus.

Surely this was a bold political stroke. Few college presidents command the same attention as Mr. Thompson. So the black coaches gained a forum for their grievances, many of which won considerable support.

They want more scholarships, an increase from the current 13 per Division I team to 15. They want relief from salary caps placed on pay for assistant coaches. And they want more minority representation in the NCAA and other basketball councils.

"We are in a battle," Mr. Mfume said somberly after they met, "to win the lives of our children."

Mr. Mfume's remarks certainly were welcome to the coaches.

But the congressman appeared in danger of reinforcing the idea that basketball remains one of the few ways up for black kids in America, a signal that risks further inflation of basketball's importance. The idea in this age of reform has been to emphasize the availability of other professional opportunities. Only one in 10,000 high school players get to the pros, after all.

And basketball scholarships are not the only economic route to higher education. Only a relative handful of the million black college students are athletes. Young men and women who want a college education may qualify for federal education grants, enter work study programs or borrow money. Many kids, white and black, are fending for themselves in precisely these ways.

The latest sports-vs.-academics upheaval occurs as a result of the Proposition 48 requirements imposed eight years ago to cope with an intercollegiate athletic system that operated on a thin cushion of cynicism: Standards did not exist, some whispered, because black athletes can't meet them.

Proposition 48 and other changes show this assertion is false. After some initial slippage in the number of admissions, black athletes are achieving the required SAT scores and graduating in higher percentages than before the standards were imposed.

Some opportunity probably has been lost. Players who might have been admitted before the standards were imposed lost out the first year. Others have fallen by the wayside since then, but the gains in retention of black athletes probably offsets the losses.

And players who have more aptitude do better when they get to school, feel more a part of the academic community and are implicit proof that the old racial stereotypes do not apply. Standards demanding progress toward graduation imposed by the NCAA have also helped restore some legitimacy to the desperate hope that academics and athletics are compatible.

The positive reports about Proposition 48 are used now to bolster the charge that coaches are motivated simply by a typically self-serving desire to take good players, whatever their scores, and to win ballgames. They are regarded as the most retrograde influences, the heel-draggers and exploiters -- and their foray onto Capitol Hill, however successful immediately as a media event, could reinforce the view.

Dr. Reginald Wilson, senior scholar at the American Council on Education, says they are trapped by sports politics and by their own records.

"Any way they handled their concerns," he says, "they'd look like they didn't want the standards to apply to them."

But there is merit in their concerns about the tests, he says. Several studies show that SAT scores are less predictive of success for black students than grades, he says. He has argued before NCAA councils for years that a more flexible and nuanced balancing of grades, test scores and other factors would yield a fairer result.

One study found that black athletes who had already graduated from college would not have been admitted under the NCAA standards. The new NCAA standards are fairer but should be even more flexible, he says.

"The problem is that the test score approach doesn't take into consideration ghetto schools that do not give preparation to do well on SATs."

He said he understands the political imperative followed by the NCAA.

"They wanted to say 'We're tough and we're going to stick with it.' " For years, they had done nothing. Suddenly, with scandals breaking out on campuses across the country, "they wanted to show a strong face to the public."

Dr. Wilson agrees with coaches that the NCAA rules do not take into account the different missions of the nearly 300 Division I universities.

Earl Hawkins, basketball coach at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, observes that at some schools, admissions standards for non-athletes are lower than the NCAA's standard for athletes.

Mr. Hawkins agrees that the coaches' case would be stronger if they seemed to be for increased educational opportunity for non-athletes as well. They are, he insists.

"We don't want it generalized to basketball. Some people, maybe even a coach or two, have done that. But it's about opportunities that will be lost. This is not about blacks or basketball. We cannot lose opportunities for kids to go to school."

4 He gave only grudging support to Proposition 48.

"Proposition 48 is probably good. We've had it for eight years. We're there. We can't go back from that."

Pushing the standards higher, he said, is a mistake.

"I don't know why we would continue to decrease opportunities."

Nor does he think Proposition 48 has brought a new awareness of standards to the nation's high schools. It is clear that athletes will have difficulty if they aren't prepared to take the tests, he said, but an appalling lack of preparation is still evident.

"Education is the real problem here," he said. "We do not educate student athletes [in high school]. They are not aware of what the requirements are. My assistants say the same thing. You still run into kids who don't have the core courses, don't take the SATs.

"Let's educate a little better. Let's make sure kids know. Let's do other things. And it has to be done at an early age. They need a constant bombardment."

At Baltimore's Dunbar High School, the SAT agonies of the best players draw big headlines. But, Pete Pompey, who coached a number of college-bound players at Dunbar, points out how complicated the situation can be. Good students can fail to do well enough on the test. Poor students figure out ways to pass.

Keith Booth, a Dunbar player who is headed for the Universityof Maryland this year, had a 3.2 grade point average but did not achieve the required test score immediately. Eventually, he did -- but Mr. Pompey says he cannot be used as an example.

"He came from a household that prepared him. Other kids' household situations are not the same. Their parents didn't have the opportunity to deal with them. That's the the difficulty of the test situation."

He said he is unhappy but resigned to the NCAA rules. "Whatever we have, I'm sure it's here to stay. Coaches and parents and players are just going to have to live with it."

As they attempt to change the rules, Dr. Wilson says, the coaches have one real problem in the court of public opinion.

They would have a much stronger case if, when schools were allowed to give scholarships to athletes with below-700 SATs, significant numbers of those athletes had earned diplomas. Instead, they compiled a record that was "scandalous," he says.

To ease that perception, perhaps, they said current recruiting rules prevent them from speaking to inner city kids, some of whom are "recruitable" athletes and, therefore, off limits. To break these rules is to invite an NCAA investigation, to be penalized with the loss of TV revenue and recruiting privileges or worse.

"Drug dealers have better access to kids than we do," says Coach Hawkins. "We all don't cheat. With the problems we have in society, we could help."

Someone is always going to say that the coaches are operating out of self-interest, he says.

"I think you have to look beyond that. We do go out and talk to kids. We do have clinics. We do deal with drug problems."

Here, too, the coaches may need to look to themselves.

Two years ago, the NCAA tried to address concerns about recruiting rules. A summit was held for the coaches by the NCAA, but little was accomplished. The rules were put in to make recruiting fair and the coaches were, at that time, unwilling to relax them.

"It comes down to the fact that they don't trust each other," says Kit Morris, an official of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

C. Fraser Smith, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, is the author of a book about college athletics, "Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor."

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