Tuesday, May 12, 2009

One number can't tell the whole story


Another failure for UConn and Jim Calhoun.

Junior center Hasheem Thabeet announced last week that he will forego his final year of college eligibility and make himself available for the NBA draft. A 7-foot-3-inch behemoth, he's projected to be among the first few players chosen. Given the NBA's salary structure, he will be guaranteed a two-year contract worth at least $2.5 million per season.

He will not, though, earn his college degree, at least not yet. If he or any player does not earn a diploma within six years of enrolling in school, he becomes a detriment to the reputation of the coach and the school. At last count, UConn's graduation rate for the men's basketball team was a sickly looking 33 percent.

These numbers are released every year just in time to give everyone excited about the sport a knock on the head. Around the start of the NCAA tournament, each school's graduation rate is held up for discussion as if all that is good or bad about a team can be boiled down to one statistic. The rates are good every year for a few outraged opinions from people who say the athletes are being treated as commodities. As soon as they have outlived their use, this thinking goes, they will be tossed aside -- and without a degree, most will have few options.

Except, as someone like Thabeet shows, it's not that simple. For one thing, it's a small sample size; a school has 13 scholarships, and most years only a handful of new players suits up. There's also the fact that nearly everyone who puts in four years on the team has a chance to make money playing basketball somewhere, college degree or no. The European leagues are packed with ex-college players not good enough for the NBA but who make a solid living -- often in the six-figure range. It's far from home and not the easiest road, but it's a living, and one that those players might not have had without four years to grow and develop at a place like UConn.

As marginal a player as Danbury native E.J. Harrison, who was backup to the backups on the 1999 national championship team, played for a decade in England. Others play in Ukraine or Australia or Israel. It's not always glamorous, but there are worse ways to spend your life.

A lot of UConn players, too, are in the NBA (13 at last count). Every one of them is a millionaire many times over, but most of them count against the school's graduation rate. If the point of the college experience is to help young people mature and expand their opportunities, it's hard to count a story like theirs as a negative.

The graduation rate is an attempt to find a shorthand look at how well or poorly a school is serving its students. And there is nothing pretty about 33 percent; it would be easy to extrapolate from that data that the focus during a player's UConn years is on everything but academic achievement. As long as the team wins and the dollars flow into the coffers, all is well.

But the reality doesn't support that view. A degree itself is no guarantee of future success, and a solid financial foundation earned by playing basketball for a living can be just as valuable, if not more.

It's partly a rationalization on the part of fans -- like me -- to play down the importance of stories that make their team and their school look bad. It's also tempting to argue the entire system is corrupt from top to bottom. There's a lot of truth in that view.

There is a lot wrong with big-time college athletics, and it's a fair argument that universities shouldn't be in the business of serving as de facto minor leagues. No one argues the coaches are pure and the system flawless.

But it would be wrong to assume you can boil down a school's morals and priorities into a simple number, no matter what it measures. Anyone who wants to rage against the system as it exists should aim a lot higher than UConn.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

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