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Emmert: Colleges must continue to support student-athletes

NCAA president tells higher education leaders that much progress has been made but more is needed

The NCAA and its member schools continue to improve how they support student-athletes, by protecting their health and safety, creating more opportunities for them to succeed academically, and involving more students in governance of the Association.

But more needs to be done to help college athletes manage the demands on their time while in school and take advantage of opportunities after they graduate, NCAA President Mark Emmert told a group of university presidents and other administrators this weekend.

Speaking Sunday in Indianapolis at the recent annual meeting of the American Public and Land-grant Universities, Emmert emphasized the gains made in academic reform, increased graduation rates and higher academic standards for incoming students.  He also stressed the ongoing commitment to player safety and more recent changes such as cost of attendance, multi-year scholarships and unlimited meals.

At the same time, he urged university leaders to make sure they are admitting student-athletes who can handle the rigor of college coursework, noting that there can be an “academic mismatch” as the general student population comes to college better prepared.

“There’s probably not a school in this room that hasn’t seen a steady increase in the academic preparation of your student body,” Emmert told  the gathering of college presidents and other top higher education administrators. The organization is made up of 240 land-grant universities nationwide and includes many large Division I research universities. “At the same time, we have a situation where the profile of student-athletes hasn’t changed much,” he added.

The NCAA has increased initial-eligibility standards that set the academic bar higher for anyone who wants to compete at the college level, and an even more strident set of standards will take effect in fall 2016. But “an academic or an admissions mismatch” still exists at some schools, Emmert said, and campus officials have an “ethical responsibility” to make sure their schools are recruiting college athletes who belong on campus.

“That’s an issue that we’ve got to stop and talk more about and think about so that we make sure that we’re allowing our student-athletes to have every crack at being successful in the classroom,” he continued. “We’ve got some work to do there – no question about it.”

The annual Graduation Success Rate study released two weeks ago shows continual increases in the number of Division I student-athletes who finish their degrees within six years of entering college. The rate is now 86 percent, up two percentage points over last year and 12 points over the class that entered in 1995, the first year the NCAA used the metric.

While there has been much improvement academically in the high-profile sports, college athletes who compete in Division I men’s basketball and football continue to trail behind cohorts in other sports. In men’s basketball, student-athletes earned a 77 percent Graduation Success Rate, up three points from last year’s report. In the Football Bowl Subdivision, the rate is 75 percent, consistent with last year’s. In the Football Championship Subdivision, the number rose from 72 percent to 76 percent.

One of the biggest impediments to the academic success of men’s basketball and football players is the lingering dream of playing professional sports, Emmert said.  He pointed to the most recent survey results from NCAA research, which show that in men’s basketball, 76 percent of Division I players believe they have a “somewhat likely” chance of playing in the NBA. Moving beyond Division I, almost 50 percent of Division II men’s basketball players and 24 percent of Division III players report that they will go pro in their sport. In reality, the number of student-athletes drafted into the NBA is 1.2 percent.

“If you believe that your future is going to be in professional sports – and the probability of that occurring is extraordinarily low – you’re not paying attention to what’s really going to change your life: a degree … in a meaningful subject matter,” Emmert said. “That’s a mismatch that we need to help them understand.”

Emmert’s comments come only  two months before the 2016 NCAA Convention in January in San Antonio, where the Division I Board of Directors will continue debating whether academic achievement should be factored into how NCAA income is disbursed to schools. Currently, funds are distributed based on the number of NCAA championship sports a school offers and a school’s performance in the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, among other factors.

Following Emmert’s remarks, USA Today reporter Steve Berkowitz led a panel discussion about the current state of college sports. Panelists included: Kendall Spencer, a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico who now fills the student-athlete seat on the Division I Board of Directors; Michael Drake, president of The Ohio State University; and Anthony Vizzini, provost and senior vice president at Wichita State University.

The bottom line, Emmert said, is how the NCAA answers an important question: “How are we helping young men and women be successful in life when they leave our institutions?”