Academics are hardly mentioned in March Madness coverage

Photo: AP

March Madness, the annual NCAA Division I basketball tournament, has been as chaotic as usual so far, with obscure underdogs eliminating top teams and numerous games decided in the final seconds. But at least one thing is different this year: More people are questioning whether it’s right that the players at the center of the extravaganza, which generates over a billion dollars in advertising revenue, are unpaid.

The NCAA justifies not paying its players by arguing that they are “student-athletes,” compensated via their education. However, as John Oliver described on March 15 in a 20-minute segment of “Last Week Tonight,” Division I athletes often learn little in school, where they are encouraged to enroll in courses that are not taken seriously. Meanwhile, recent scandals involving the Syracuse and the University of North Carolina basketball programs, two of the most prestigious in the country, show how intense sports commitments can push players to cheat to pass classes.

The media cover such scandals when they break out, but those are among the rare times that the “student” half of the “student-athlete” paradigm comes into view. Otherwise, a player’s academics are only deemed noteworthy if she is an exceptionally good student. Leaving the academic experiences of the majority of players unaddressed inadvertently supports the NCAA’s narrative that sports are an effective part of a holistic education.

“I think a lot of the school stuff almost comes with a hint of PR,” said Ricky O’Donnell, SB Nation’s college basketball editor, referring to reporting on players’ academic interests. “That’s not what we’re in the business of covering. We’re covering sports.”

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In other words, at SB Nation, as in other outlets, college basketball coverage, like NBA coverage, is narrowly focused on games and players’ impact on them, while breaches of the rules are analyzed for their effect on his team. For instance, O’Donnell pointed out that last season, after Notre Dame star Jerian Grant was suspended for unspecified “academic impropriety,” most fans probably did not react by worrying that Grant wasn’t doing his homework. O’Donnell does not think the media’s reaction to such infractions is very different: “I think that from a media perspective, a lot of the rules are more of a nuisance than a crucial part of the story.”

For Lindsay Schnell, who writes about college basketball and football for Sports Illustrated, academics only become part of a story if the player is studying a subject that is “unconventional,” by which she means not “general studies,” communications, or sociology, the topics typically associated with athletes. Her January profile of Gonzaga Senior Kevin Pangos contains a telling paragraph in which she writes, “Those who know Pangos say one of his best qualities is a hunger for more information.” She describes that hunger entirely in terms of his appetite for basketball knowledge.

On the other hand, Schnell said, “If someone is pre-med or an econ major, something that takes a lot of time and is really specific, I will ask them about that.”

Similarly, Laura Keeley, a Duke basketball reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, the paper that led the way in exposing the academic violations at UNC, only writes about a player’s schoolwork “if it’s relevant.” She thought it was to a January 2014 profile of then-Duke star Jabari Parker, who now plays for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. Keeley interviewed Parker’s cultural anthropology professor, who described her student as “very wise for one so young.” By the same token, this year, journalists have often noted Princeton women’s basketball star Blake Dietrick’s affinity for Medieval English literature. And seemingly whenever University of Virginia men’s guard Malcolm Brogdon is mentioned, from ESPN to The New York Times to CBS Sports, it is reverentially explained that he is simultaneously pursuing an undergraduate degree in history and an accelerated master’s in public policy.

On its own, there is no problem with the media using anecdotes like these to illustrate a player’s personality (and there is no question that Brogdon’s studiousness is impressive). But since the downside of college sports is seldom covered except in the context of high-profile scandals, painting a rosy picture of the diligence of individual players suggests that the individuals implicated in the scandals are at fault, instead of the system as a whole. This is, of course, exactly what the NCAA wants, as evidenced by its aggressive marketing of the “student-athlete” concept, most famously in this commercial campaign from past years:

Yet, at least at major programs, academically indifferent athletes are almost certainly far more common than precocious ones. And cases of academic “impropriety” are probably as plentiful as those of forbidden gift-giving, which can be as trivial as a prospective recruit being taken out to lunch by a University. As SB Nation’s O’Donnell said of Kansas star Cliff Alexander, who is currently under investigation for having accepted “improper benefits,” “I feel like if the NCAA was really going to poke around in similar cases, kids coming from similar environments, similarly talented recruits, they’re going to be able to find whatever they want to find.”

Such a witch-hunt would result in the mass punishment of kids, often from poor backgrounds, for accepting favors from people with the power to help them achieve their aspirations. Young athletes in these situations are not villains; they are merely acting on the incentives laid out before them, as are athletes who neglect their studies to work on their ball-handling and jump shots.

Thus, the solution is not for journalists to attempt to reveal the tension between college sports and academics by investigating individual athletes for academic fraud, seeking to expose players with bad GPAs, or embarrassing them by revealing the ignorance that a sound education would rectify. The ideal alternative would be more reporting on the conditions that cause people to neglect education in favor of basketball, from the cultural emphasis on sports to the draw of becoming a millionaire in the NBA to, most importantly, the vast revenue streams athletes generate for universities and the NCAA. News organizations should devote resources to that kind of reporting, but it is outside the purview of most sports journalism.

The best option for sports writers, then, is to stick more closely to the approach they already take most of the time, which is to discuss and write about players’ on-court performance. The occasional detail is a small price to pay for what would amount to a complete (if implicit) acknowledgment of the reality: College athletes are professionals by almost every definition of the word except the NCAA’s, which is the reason we judge them worthy of media coverage in the first place.

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Christopher Massie is a CJR contributing editor.