Calling Foul

Liberals’ College Hoops Pity Party

Think top college programs are just using up poor, helpless athletes then tossing them aside? One graduation statistic slaps away that argument.

03.21.14 9:45 AM ET

One of the silliest arguments I’ve heard in recent years is this idea that college athletics represents some kind of indentured servitude. According to the website of the College Board, the average four-year cost at an in-state public school is about $74,000 in education, housing, and meals. For an out-of-state student at a public school, it’s a little north of $120,000. And at Duke and Stanford and all the other private institutions, the price tag averages $164,000. Student-athletes get those generous amounts in direct, in-kind compensation.

If that’s servitude, sign me up.

Yes, these athletes—or a very small number of them anyway, at a comparatively small number of schools, in the marquee sports of men’s football and basketball—print money for their alma maters. I’m not against them drawing modest salaries, because it’s work and it takes up a lot of their time. A modest salary, and the Heisman-worthy running back should make the same as the pine-riding second-string punter.

But the servitude argument, as I read most of the rants against college athletics, isn’t really grounded in financial concerns. Emotionally, it’s grounded in this notion people have that major sports universities are just factories that take these poor kids out of ghettoes and off the farms and use them for four years and spit them out and carelessly send them back to where they came from, where the 99 percent who don’t make the pros end up pumping gas. That’s what infuriates the liberals, and it is mostly liberals who reflexively see big-money institutions as heartless and poor kids (especially when they’re black) as pawns in a corporate game.

For all this to be true, if indeed the competitive schools in the major sports just use these kids, it would stand to reason that those schools don’t graduate them. Right? Because after all, if they’re just using them for their ability to put a ball in a 10-foot high hole, then clearly no one in coaching or administration actually cares whether they graduate.

So I conducted a little March Madness-related experiment here. I took the top 16-seeded teams in the 68-team field—that is, the top four seeds in each region. For each of these 16 schools, I compared the six-year graduation rates of the general student population and the men’s basketball team. For the general student population , I used figures from the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education. For men’s hoop players, I used numbers compiled every March (PDF) by the University of Central Florida’s School of Business Administration.

At how many of the 16 do you think the men’s basketball players’ graduation rates were higher than the general student population’s? If the indentured-servitude thesis is correct, it should be a pretty low number, right? I asked two friends after compiling the numbers to guess. One said three, the other said two.

Answer: Men’s basketball players graduate at higher rates at nine of the 16 schools. The schools and the respective graduation rates, hoopsters’ first then general student body’s, are as follows: Wichita State (75 percent, 41 percent), Duke (100 percent, 94 percent), Louisville (70 percent, 49 percent), Arizona (64 percent, 60 percent), Creighton (91 percent, 77 percent), San Diego State (75 percent, 66 percent), Kansas (100 percent, 61 percent), Villanova (100 percent, 90 percent), and Michigan State (89 percent, 77 percent).

Here are the seven schools whose general student populations graduate at a higher rate than men’s basketball players, this time with the former first: Michigan (90 percent, 75 percent), Wisconsin (83 percent, 44 percent), Florida (85 percent, 60 percent), Syracuse (82 percent, 45 percent), UCLA (90 percent, 60 percent), Virginia (93 percent, 64 percent), and Iowa State (70 percent, 54 percent).

Clearly, there are some schools, and some very good schools, that aren’t educating their athletes the way they should be. I’m talkin’ to you, Boeheim. And what’s up in Madison? And the hugest raspberry of all goes to another school that’s a perennial hoops powerhouse but is just a No. 7 seed this year and so didn’t factor into my research: Connecticut graduates just 8 percent of its men’s basketballers.

Now, you can throw all the cold water on this you want. I don’t claim that my findings are scientific. And of course I wouldn’t deny that at some schools athletes are given easy or even free rides, as we’ve learned with the big University of North Carolina scandal about hundreds of fake classes for athletes that never met. But I’ve kept an eye on these comparative graduation rates for years, and I do claim that my findings are fairly representative of the broader picture.

I looked at the graduation rates of the 10 schools that finished atop the football rankings last season. It is true that the general student population graduated at higher rates at seven of the 10, but at three of those seven (Auburn, Clemson, and Oregon), the two figures were within a few points. The three where football rates were higher were Alabama, Missouri, and Central Florida. The four where the differences are significant, and the percentage by which the football rate is lower, are Florida State (-19), Oklahoma (-16), Michigan State (-13), and South Carolina (-13). But in six of 10 cases, football players’ graduation rates are either higher or within a couple points.

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In general, in 2012, across the whole spectrum, 74 percent of men’s basketball players and 70 percent of football players graduated in six or fewer years. Is this the picture of a callous culture that chews these young men up and spits them out? At some schools, undeniably. But in many cases, the strong majority of these young men, and the young women who are scholarship athletes as well, do what they went to college to do. Get an education. For free. Some slavery.

A lot of my fellow liberals don’t understand all this because frankly they mostly went to hoity-toity colleges and don’t understand anything about the culture of land-grant state schools. I went to one, so I do. Land-grant schools take all comers. Louisiana State University exists first and foremost to educate Louisianans at a reasonable price. That means a lot of kids are going to come to Baton Rouge and try college for a while, not like it, and leave. Athletes in Baton Rouge, however, have an extra motivation, in the form of the free ride, to stick it out. And a lot of them do. The LSU football players’ graduation rate is 77 percent, 18 points higher than the general student body.

Now there’s a lot that’s gross about college sports. But if you want to start paying star athletes star wages, you’re only going to make the gross things grosser. Pretty soon there’ll be recruiting bidding wars. Soon enough after that, trades—can you imagine a sophomore Alabama star being traded to USC? Soon enough after that, there’ll be free agency. College sports will then soon cease to exist.

That is the goal of many of these people. It’s a totally wrongheaded and deeply elitist goal, predicated on the peddling of false information and a total lack of understanding of what state universities do for young people, and a complete absence of feeling for the emotional ties among alumni at these schools that athletics builds.

So yay, March Madness. I’m only bummed that I filled out my bracket before I looked at these rates. I’m talkin’ to you, Boeheim.