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NCAA looks out for No. 1

The Baltimore Sun

I believe that if the NCAA wanted to, it could -- in conjunction with the NBA and with the blessing of the fans -- give players reason to attend school, stay for a while and get some real educational benefit from it, including a degree.

I also believe that the NCAA isn't even remotely interested in accomplishing any of that, except where it gets the organization more money and a better reputation. Same for the NBA. As for the fans, they care deeply about graduation rates and the annual Academic Progress Rate right up until the time their favorite team makes a Final Four run.

If the powers-that-be in college sports really cared about the players' "academic progress," they would seek to function less as moneymakers for the NCAA itself and for its member schools and less as the NBA's minor league.

But until then, you have to take this latest example of NCAA image-polishing with a grain of salt. Four years into this new program to measure classroom success (or lack thereof), the results remain predictable and easy to read. The sports with the lowest average APR are football and men's basketball.

Duh. Revenue sports. Also the ones with the most questionable admissions, the most opportunities for academic shortcuts and the biggest impediments to departure for the pros -- also known, in basketball, as the competition.

Thus, as much as one can blurt out a conditioned complaint about poor, underprivileged youth wasting a free education, it's just as easy to see how the NCAA is undermining its own goals. While claiming it's trying to raise the level of academic accomplishment, it's putting the players themselves into a damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don't situation.

How else to explain why players who otherwise would go to the pros straight from high school -- and thus not potentially drag down a school's APR -- are forced to go for a year? Or why, if they know they can make it in the NBA after that one season, they have to stay in school that spring semester just to keep schools' numbers above water, and for no other reason?

Does it really serve the needs of the player or school to let him test the NBA waters as long as he doesn't hire an agent, when it's almost impossible to make an evaluation that critical without proper representation? Is there any reason to keep a player who changes his mind about the pros after the draft from returning to college ball, except that it's inconvenient for the school and the NCAA?

And after his senior season, if a player needs to assess his options and hit the tryout circuit, how does it help anybody to taint his and his school's reputations for that decision? Would anybody in any other sport, or any other profession, period, get maligned for doing the same thing?

That brings us back to a fundamental question: Why does the NBA need this age limit in the first place? And this one: In 2008, can't the NBA build a real minor league, something more extensive than its Developmental League, and stop co-opting the colleges for training and promotional purposes?

And one more: Is the NCAA ever going to get around to serving the player even a fraction as much as it serves itself?

It would be beneficial to everybody if the NCAA got over itself and treated basketball (and football) players the same way it treats athletes that it doesn't cash in on by the billions every year.

Now, in fairness, it would also be beneficial for a school such as Maryland to step its game up. The stars who make it to the pros still make up a tiny percentage of all the players in college ball. The overwhelming majority show up on campus with no notion of going pro, and leave the same way. They are highly motivated to finish up on time, graduate and get on with their lives.

A school with the resources Maryland has can, and should, do better by all the players it brings in. If they want their degrees, make sure they get them. If they want to get them and can't, figure out why and fix the problem.

If they only want to use campus as a springboard to pro ball, then the problem goes to Gary Williams' door, And Debbie Yow's. And everybody else involved in the program.

It just doesn't stop there, though. One of these days, the NCAA is going to have to explain why it keeps waving through youngsters who don't want a college education, puts up roadblocks to their getting one, then inflicts punishment when they leave without one.

Listen to David Steele Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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