Friday, April 6, 2012

A new way to exploit college athletes

Image appearing in the 5 April Equity Express Email

Intercollegiate athletics are a controversial topic in higher education on a number of levels.  And, like just about any other part of the academy, athletic departments have their problems.  One common critique of the current big-time college sports system is that student-athletes who are members of prominent teams at high-profile schools are exploited in that their success on the field, in the pool, or at the ballpark brings huge financial gains for others (e.g. their coaches, their institutions, or the governing body that "protects" them).  For a couple of good reads on these issues see Murray Sperber's Beer and Circus and William Rhoden's Forty Million Dollar Slaves.

Yesterday I saw a new way to exploit college athletes and, ironically, it came from an organization who claims to "speak up for students."  The Education Trust sent an email yesterday to what I am assuming is a very long mailing list.  In the body of the email was the image at right, which compares the University of Kentucky's point total from their National Championship win with their six year graduation rate. Clearly, it was a clever and timely move that was effective in communicating a key message for The Education Trust (i.e. There is a problem with the graduation rates in American institutions.  I agree, those of us who make our livings in higher education need to find a way to ensure that more students graduate from our institutions.  What I do object to, however, is The Education Trust's use of an individual institution and further, 15 members of a single athletic team at that institution, to promote their agenda.  By linking the institution's graduation rate with the men's basketball team, Education Trust seems to imply that the basketball team also has a low graduation rate and that the members of the team are poor students.  Of course, not every reader of the email will make those assumptions, but the design and tone of the message seem to imply it.

I don't have any idea what the graduation rate for John Calipari's team is.  And, it's quite possible it is close to the institution's rate (if not lower); however, for The Education Trust to throw the entire team under the bus seems uncalled for.  Additionally, although I have no data to back this up, I wouldn't imagine that UK's graduation rate is all that different from many other teams in the recent NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, so, to single out one institution seems shady as well.

As much as I agree with the mission of Education Trust, they owe the University of Kentucky as well as the members of the men's basketball team an apology.

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