2019 NCAA championship game highlights a new twist

To anyone not enthralled by college basketball, Monday night’s NCAA final between Texas Tech and the University of Virginia provides another moment to criticize the role of big-time sports at American universities.

It’s not a hard argument to make. Many a top hoop prospect attends college for just one year before charging off to the NBA, complying with the league’s “one and done” rule that draftees must be one year removed from high school. Many of those who stay longer are only passingly interested in the scholastic opportunities available to them. Coaches, schools and broadcasters make big money; the vast majority of college athletes who don’t go pro, not so much.

This year’s championship game brings a new twist, however. Thanks to the recent college admissions scandal, Americans have come to realize that it is not just big-time universities that are turning themselves upside down over sports. And it is not just big-time sports like football and basketball that are causing this inversion.

Among other things, the sweeping FBI sting revealed that some parents were paying bribes to coaches — of sports such as water polo, sailing and soccer — to have their sons or daughters listed as athletes when, in fact, they had no such skills.

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Obviously, colleges need to do more vetting and oversight to make sure that applicants listed as coveted athletes really are as advertised. But more important is why these colleges are so interested in sports, and why they are so willing to compromise their standards and make exceptions to achieve nonacademic goals.

USCAA:College admission scandal is not a nationwide epidemic.

With football and basketball at major universities, there is at least a hope that these widely followed sports turn a profit. But one has to wonder why schools would care so much about wrestlers, pole vaulters and such, or why colleges with enrollments as small as 1,200 would place such an emphasis on fielding competitive football teams.

The only real answer is that they have allowed sports to pervert their core mission, which is to educate young men and women and prepare them for life. Flooded with qualified applicants, colleges often look to extracurricular activities to single people out. But all too often, sports has become the one nonacademic factor that really matters. The FBI did not come up with examples of parents paying bribes to have their child’s bassoon-playing skills inflated.

The fixation with sports might be the most galling at the most storied schools in America. Although Ivy League schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, a recent study at Harvard found that applicants with a 16% chance of acceptance would see their odds shoot up to 83% if they had the potential to be a varsity athlete.

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At small colleges that compete in a range of intercollegiate sports, 15% to 20% of the students could be athletic admits. At a college with an enrollment of 1,800, for instance, a 60-person football team alone might account for about 7% of the male enrollment.

American high school students have become skeptical about colleges for a host of reasons — their soaring costs, their willingness to employ professors who don’t spend much time in the classroom, and their opaque admissions processes. One of the easiest and most dramatic changes schools could make would be to stop admitting so many because of their prowess at sports.

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