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Respect without admiration

Aaron Bart Fricke | Tuesday, April 8, 2008

As I write this, the Kansas Jayhawks are battling the Memphis Tigers for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. I’m an enthusiastic fan of college basketball, and as I watch these two exceptional basketball teams compete for this most precious and improbable of Tournament victories, and despite this dazzling display of quickness and skill, I am filled with great sense of regret. For I know that this is not really college basketball that I am watching and that these exceedingly talented basketball players are not really student-athletes.

In fact, though they represent their Universities so well in this great competition, few (perhaps NONE) of these players that I am now watching will actually earn degrees from their schools. According to the NCAA website, in the 2000-2001 school year, of those Memphis Men’s Basketball players who had exhausted their eligibility, only 33 percent graduated. On average, the Memphis basketball team has graduation rate of 30 percent.

Kansas graduates a paltry 40 percent of its basketball players, on average. And perhaps saddest of all, none of the African-American basketball players at the University of Memphis graduated in 2000-2001. None. Only one-third did so at Kansas in the same year.

I mention this not to shame the players or diminish their accomplishment on the basketball court, and certainly not to make ill-conceived pronouncements regarding the role of money in college athletics, race, exploitation, or to compare Notre Dame athletes to those at others schools. I merely would like to suggest that all of us take this time to contemplate how miserably these Universities, indeed all of us, are failing these players. And I call on all of you to demand better. We should rise up and be awed by this abominable waste of potential. Consider how we are all complicit in their failure. Consider how we watch silently as these players fail as students and scholars. And consider the vast resources that surround these students, the time and money invested in these enterprises, and their failure to achieve is almost unfathomable.

What a loss for these wonderful human beings, these marvelously talented young men, who might have become our fellow professionals and colleagues, as well as more informed and articulate citizens! What a shame! Opportunities for empowerment, squandered. The chance to transform families and future generations with education, frittered away. The prospect of a new mind, an original voice, a poet, an artist to be discovered, fostered, and opened up by the pursuit of academic excellence, p***** away.

College athletes undergo a truly grueling schedule. For those who take their roles as both students and athletes seriously, the physical and intellectual rigors are formidable. For these blessed and talented young men and women to come together each day to train for many hours, all the while keeping up with the demands of family and faith, while still managing to master English Literature, History, and Physics – this is indeed a great and noble accomplishment and worthy of our admiration.

Indeed, we are proud of these students because at their best they represent the best in all of us. They show us what is possible. In recognition of their example, Universities offer them scholarships because despite the fact that some of these great athletes may not be truly the best minds among us, to nonetheless succeed in both arenas is exceedingly rare and requires a type of scholarly aptitude and dedication that is laudable and worthy of high regard. A great scholar OR a great athlete is to be respected. A great scholar AND great athlete is to be honored, admired.

On that note, I’d like to say thank you to all those NCAA student athletes here at Notre Dame and elsewhere who have managed to rise to this dual challenge and succeed; you make us proud! But it is with great sadness that I have to contemplate that so many of these great athletes, from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and from colleges across the nation, are not REALLY college students at all, and that it is not REALLY “college” basketball that I am watching. Perhaps I am watching two fine D-league NBA teams, or some variation thereof, masquerading as college basketball teams. I’m not sure, but I do know that they are interloping because they are hardly college teams and the vast majority of these players can only be described as barely students. This is profoundly disappointing.

But much worse, throughout the television coverage, the interviews, the color commentary, not one word of this sad status quo was heard. This is appalling! I suggest that we start to remedy this situation by saying to anyone who will listen, “THIS IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH.” To the Board of Regents, the NCAA, the U.S. Congress – It simply is not good enough. The seconds are ticking away … Well done, Kansas! Your players performed brilliantly, and you overcame great odds and a fierce and talented Memphis team to win a stunning overtime victory. You are victorious and I congratulate you. You have my respect, but not my admiration.

Aaron Bart Fricke is a 2008 Juris Doctor Candidate. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada which has a men’s basketball graduation rate of 40%. Graduation rates at U.S. colleges can be found at:

http://www2.ncaa.org/portal/academics_and_athletes/education_and_research/academic_reform/grad_rate/2007/d1_school_grad_rate_data.html. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.