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Friday March 30, 2001

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By Lora J. Mackel

Getting to an NCAA tournament after an emotional season: expensive. Maintaining the academic eligibility of student athletes: $500,000 a year.

The university reaping the benefits of a winning athletic team: priceless.

It has been a great season for men's basketball. Every element of a great drama was there including tragedy, triumph, peace and finally reconciliation. But the heroics of our athletes have more than just an emotional impact on our community. Their actions excite the attentions of millions, and generate valuable dollars for our university through advertising and enrollment recruitment.

The UA rewards these hard-working athletes with a nearly free education, athletic exposure and training and a nurturing environment.

But we have to question whether the free education is of value to the men and women who do so much for us, and whether these athletes should be rewarded in alternative ways.

Currently, our school invests a significant amount of time, resources and money on maintaining the facade of the student athlete. On the surface, it seems the academics are stressed in a number of ways. Coaches are offered bonuses for maintaining a certain level of academic achievement. The university encourages athletes to perform by offering tutors, requiring attendance at study halls, and providing special remedial classes to improve study skills.

All of these programs are not cheap- they cost $500,000 annually to maintain.

Despite all of the university's efforts, student athletes in many of the athletic programs are floundering. Our basketball team - the object of so much attention as of late - maintains an overall grade point average of 2.0, the bare minimum required for eligibility. Only 17 percent of men's basketball players that came into the program between the years of 1990-1993 graduated. Figures for our football team are slightly better, both in GPA and in terms of graduation, but the fact remains that the GPA of the athletic population at the university trails behind that of the general population.

What many sports experts realize is that the big moneymakers-men's collegiate football and basketball-are used as minor-league environments for the athletes, many of which have no intention or interest in obtaining a college degree. Quite a few of the athletes in these programs, especially when considering how well-respected our men's basketball team is, come here for the sole purpose of improving their craft and getting offered as an NBA draft pick.

While they are here, the university benefits from them enormously. Everywhere our team goes, the UA gets free advertising and the kind of goodwill that no other marketing device could ever manufacture. That is why the university feels justified in paying Lute Olson and John Mackovic the highest salaries of any state employees, because together they pull money back in to the academic system. According to a recent column, the UA gains roughly $10 million of profit a year from the team. The basketball and football teams fund themselves, along with all of the other athletic programs the UA runs.

Clearly, the university values the work of student athletes. The question is whether the student part of the equation should be maintained any longer. Our talented athletes would benefit more from a program where students received payment or a degree in return for their work. An NBA-bound basketball player might benefit more from the training he receives on the court than a half-hearted attempt at a degree. Regardless, UA athletes are unpaid state employees, and should have a say in how they are rewarded.

For every player that gets into the NBA or another professional league, there will be many more that never make it. As it is, there are plenty of basketball and football players who are very interested in pursuing their degrees - Gene Edgerson being a shining example of this. But the numbers don't lie. Many of the prime money-making sports programs have lousy graduation rates and GPAs.

Perhaps it is time to change how the university views their athletes-less as students and more as employees.