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Original Issue

Propping Up Student-Athletes

With Prop 48's success, college educators are pushing high schoolers to aim even higher

Before the fur begins to fly at the annual NCAA convention next month over Proposition 16, an initiative that calls for marginally higher eligibility standards for incoming student-athletes, it seems relevant to assess the effect of its predecessor, Proposition 48.

Remember Prop 48? Implemented in 1986, it decreed that to be eligible to play in his or her freshman year, an incoming student-athlete had to have scored a combined 700 (out of a possible 1,600) on the SAT, or a comparable score on the ACT, and have earned a 2.0 (out of 4.0) average in 11 core high school courses. Proponents of the measure hoped these entry-level standards would increase graduation rates of all student-athletes, which among Division I scholarship athletes in the early 1980s were 33% for basketball players and 37.5% for football players. Graduation rates for black student-athletes in those sports were even lower—29% for the freshman classes of '84 and '85, the last classes to be admitted before Prop 48.

The purpose of Prop 48 was to put the student back into student-athlete. But critics of the rule—primarily coaches and athletic directors—howled that the academic criteria, particularly the use of test scores, would unfairly affect blacks by disproportionately restricting their access to college. However, not all members of the college sports hierarchy bought into that criticism. "I remember being asked in 1986 if black student-athletes should be exempted from Proposition 48," says Dr. Leroy Walker, who in '86 was president of The Athletics Congress. He is now the first black president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and a member of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent panel of education and business leaders. "My response was, You're asking me to tell all black high schoolers, 'You're too dumb to get a C average, too dumb to get a 700 on the boards.' I don't feel inclined to do that."

Eight years later we have a clearer picture of Prop 48's impact. The Rand Corporation, hired in October by the Knight Commission to study the reams of data compiled by the NCAA regarding graduation rates among student-athletes, determined among other things that after an initial two-year decline in the percentage of athletic scholarships awarded to blacks following Prop 48's enactment, the numbers soon rebounded to, and eventually exceeded, former levels. In the 1992-93 academic year, 25.6% of scholarship athletes in Division I were black, compared with 24% in '85. Blacks who did not meet Prop 48 requirements were being replaced by blacks who did.

The number of black student-athletes who graduated within five years of enrollment rose from 30% to 40%. Likewise, under Prop 48, the percentage of white players who earned degrees increased from 54% to 60%, and the number of women graduates, regardless of race, jumped from 56% to 69%. Graduation rates of all scholarship athletes now approximate those of the student body as a whole. Prop 48 is a success.

Prop 16, which was passed at the 1992 NCAA convention by a 3-to-1 margin and is due to take effect for next year's freshmen, raises the bar a notch. The question now being debated by educators is, Does it raise the bar too high? To be eligible to compete under Prop 16, which has a sliding scale for grade and test-score requirements, an incoming freshman's average must be 2.5 in 13 core subjects if his SAT score is 700 (or his ACT score is 17). At the other end of the scale a 2.0 would require a 900 SAT (21 ACT).

Coaches and athletic directors speak with one voice on the subject, a voice not unfamiliar to veterans of the Prop 48 wars. Prop 16, they howl, is unfair; it's discriminatory; it will deny access to higher education to blacks and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Most coaches would like to see Prop 16 repealed before it takes effect, and many would like to see the NCAA remove the minimum test score entirely.

Walker doesn't buy into those arguments. Endorsing Prop 16, he says, "Empirical evidence tells me clearly that the student-athlete will rise to the occasion if the expectations are raised and are reasonable. What I keep hearing from black kids across this country is, 'Don't sell us short.' "

If the SATs and ACTs are culturally biased against blacks, as Walker suspects they are, they are not so culturally biased that scoring 700 on the college boards is an unreasonable expectation. To claim otherwise is to ignore the accomplishments of the 1.2 million black undergraduates now enrolled in Division I schools who have no involvement in athletics. Think about that. The 15,000 blacks in Division I institutions who had athletic scholarships in 1992 represented only 1.2% of the entire black undergraduate enrollment. The message the NCAA sends our nation's young people must not be: If you're good enough on the field, we'll make a place for you. It must be: If you're good enough in the classroom, there will be a place for you—whether you're an athlete or not.