Dumb Jocks and Student-Athlete Propaganda

The student-athlete fairytale is true. Except where you would reasonably expect it to be a lie.

Joe Nocera has been watching the NCAA tournament basketball tournament and is disgusted with the institution’s propaganda about student-athletes:

If you’ve been watching the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championship — a k a March Madness — you’ve undoubtedly seen the commercial. It’s an N.C.A.A. ad that shows college athletes pumping iron, running sprints and playing games. The voice-over, though, talks not about athletic achievement but academic accomplishment. “African-American males who are student-athletes are 10 percent more likely to graduate,” says the narrator. As the ad concludes, a female athlete looks into the camera and says, “Still think we’re just a bunch of dumb jocks?”

Here’s the ad in question:


After some commentary on the history of “amateurism” and its variants, Nocera continues,

Is it true that black male athletes have a higher graduation rate than other students? It is not. The N.C.A.A. has created several other Orwellian concepts, such as an Academic Progress Rate, which allows it to use data to create the illusion that athletes are doing better academically than their peers.

But Richard Southall, who directs the College Sport Research Institute at the University of North Carolina — along with two colleagues, E. Woodrow Eckard of the University of Colorado-Denver and Mark Nagel at the University of South Carolina — have done rigorous studies that show the opposite. In comparing college basketball players with their true peer group — full-time college students — their data show that the athletes are 20 percent less likely to graduate than nonathletes. They also parsed the data by race: of the teams in this year’s March Madness, for instance, the black athletes are 33 percent less likely to graduate than nonathletes.

Margaret Soltan comments, “But spare a thought for organizations like the Knight Commission,whose offering to Oceania is the regular convocation around conference tables of men in their best suits who look worried about the situation. The N.C.A.A. couldn’t do what it does without them.”

But study after study after study shows that college athletes do indeed graduate at a higher rate than their non-athlete peers. What Southall and company are doing here is looking at men’s basketball players, not student-athletes as a whole. Now, that’s probably fair in the context of an ad being shown during the men’s basketball tournament. It’s misleading in that context because men’s basketball players–especially those in the big time programs–have abysmally low graduation rates. But outside of the two “revenue” sports–football and men’s basketball–athletes are better than students as a whole.

That’s not surprising. As I noted some time back in a post titled “Why Athletes Graduate at Higher Rate Than Other Students,”

First, the NCAA eligibility requirements, which are barriers mostly to football and men’s basketball players, keep out students without the scholastic preparation and aptitude to attend college. At all but the most selective institutions, this doesn’t happen for non-athletes. That means that a lot of students fail after their freshman year and drop out of school.

Second, while football skews the numbers a bit because of the size of the teams and the visibility of that sport, the fact of the matter is that most college athletes are involved in non-revenue sports like golf, swimming, tennis, cross-country, gymnastics, soccer, lacrosse, crew, rugby, and the like. They’re typically highly motivated individuals from well-off families. So, again, we’re talking about a more competitive pool than the non-athlete comparison group.

The notion that college athletics is a sham is almost entirely an outgrowth of the fact that collegiate football and men’s basketball have been huge spectator sports for so long. But they’re extreme outliers.

Those two sports  lure a lot of students to college with dreams of a huge payday in the pros and therefore have a disproportionate number of players who would not be in school but for sports. When I was teaching at Troy, I was constantly shocked by the number of football and basketball players who were marginal players at what was  at the time a Division I-AA program making the shift to I-A/FBS who were sure that they were going to be pro athletes.

In basketball, in particular, the NBA’s collusion with the players’ union to restrict entry to those over 20 years of age–despite the fact that some of the League’s best players ever, including Kobe Bryant and LeBron James dominated right out of high school–encourages aspiring pros to spend a year or two in college. (The “one-and-done” rule is now becoming “two-and-done” pursuant to the most recent CBA.) The nature of pro football is such that physical maturation is more crucial, so there’s more incentive to stay in school longer. Additionally, the NCAA is the NFL’s farm system and both institutions benefit from the relationship.

But this isn’t true of any other sport. Women’s basketball players typically exhaust their eligibility–and graduate–before turning pro, given the relatively lower salaries and fewer available slots. Baseball players who don’t have an interest in academics simply go to the minor leagues right out of high school. Few golfers are good enough to turn pro before finishing college. Tennis, by contrast, is a young person’s sport so the best tend to turn pro as teenagers.

The bottom line, then, is that the fairytale that the NCAA is pushing about student-athletes as well-rounded individuals who represent the best of what college is supposed to be about is actually true–except for the sports that people are watching and create the need for the NCAA’s propaganda. The players on the soccer, tennis, gymnastics, swimming, rugby, rowing, lacrosse, softball, golf, and other teams are much more likely than their non-athlete peers to be great students who go on to great things. The sham, not surprisingly, is with the teams where there’s a multi-billion dollar incentive to create one.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. grumpy realist says:

    I remember teaching physics at a Big 10 school. The one professed football player was hardworking and quite able, academically. The only “advantage” he ever asked for was to be able to make up a pop quiz which was falling on the same day there was a big “away” game.

    The sorority “girls” in the class had a far higher sense of self-entitlement and gave me far more problems…(“can’t I get out of this test? Pleeeease?” )

  2. superdestroyer says:

    At one time All-American football players could be expected to go on to successful career such as Byron White. I doubt if any finalist for the Heisman in the last 20 years will never be a judge in a federal court.

    The idea of graduating goes along with the idea of financial success. Remember that most professional athletes will declare bankruptcy at least once in their life.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @grumpy realist: My recollection is similar. The jocks may have been more delusional, thinking they were going to make millions in the NFL when they weren’t starting on a third tier college team. But they were mostly good kids who didn’t expect any favors.

    @superdestroyer: I don’t think there was ever an era where Byron White was typical of students, much less star athletes. But there are cases every year of very big football stars competing for Rhodes Scholarships, for example. And quite a number of star football players, especially, go on to law school and stellar careers after their playing days are done.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    I attended a major public university and I found that most of the athletes who in all probability were not going to be professional athletes were definitely legitimate Student-Athletes.

    I am speaking of those who played in high school and were successful there but for reasons of size and speed a professional career in sports was not going to happen.

    They were on the team, were second team guys, had the rigorous training and practice regimen, and they carried a legitimate course load with non-mickey mouse courses.

    The really high profile athletes are often a completely different matter. They see sports as a personal lottery possibility.

  5. Gustopher says:

    I don’t know, they’re providing unpaid labor for an industry that makes hundreds of millions of dollars off their labor. Sounds pretty dumb to me.

  6. al-Ameda says:

    @Gustopher: a full room and board scholarship is not “unpaid labor.” Should they receive more compensation? Perhaps.

  7. superdestroyer says:


    The athletes do not make money for their universities. Outside of the BCS schools, all the athletic programs lose money. In reality, athletic programs are separate, not-for-profit corporations from the university that give no real benefit to the school.

    At most schools, student fees are transferred to the athletic programs instead of funds being transferred from the athletic program to the university.