Arne Duncan’s Idea To Fine College Coaches Who Don’t Graduate Players Makes No Sense

Arne Duncan

In a USA Today op-ed published Friday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and business executive Tom McMillen argue that the focus on athletics and academics at major American colleges and universities is out of balance, and they proposed multiple ideas to fix it. The majority focus on the salaries of major college basketball coaches, which have skyrocketed in recent years even though graduation rates have not.

While some of the reforms make sense — I like the idea of clawbacks for coaches who get programs in trouble and then bolt to a new school — one of their proposals does not:

Governing boards and college presidents can take steps to right that imbalance. They could adopt a model of “best practices” that includes greater parity in new contracts for coaches between academic and athletic bonuses and provides penalties for poor academic performance.

It’s hard to analyze exactly how such a system would work, but the basic idea of penalizing coaches for poor academic results is a reform that sounds good on its face but is likely to cause more problems than it solves. For one, it punishes the wrong people. Coaches aren’t responsible for developing a culture in which winning is the primary goal. At major athletics programs, no coach who graduates 100 percent of his players but loses a majority of his games is going to keep his job. Why, then, would we punish the coach for prioritizing what they are paid to prioritize? That allows universities and administrators the freedom to ignore their own culpability in the creation of a culture that prioritizes athletic success over academics and their own participation in a business arrangement that generates millions of dollars in revenues but leaves athletes both undereducated and without any voice in the process.

The biggest problem, though, is that such a penalty cuts off the top of the tree but doesn’t do anything about the roots. It’s easy, after all, to graduate more players: put them in easier classes, fudge their grades when they need help, and hand them a diploma. That’s already occurred at places like North Carolina, Florida State, and Georgia. It isn’t much of a secret that it’s happening elsewhere when athletes all show up in the same geology class (“Rocks For Jocks“) or when nearly all of them end up majoring in sociology, communications, or whatever that school’s athletics major-of-choice is. With the help of coaches, tutors, and professors, athletes have been gaming the academic side of the equation for decades. The university almost always party to the process.

There’s no question that the way major colleges and universities educate their athletes is broken and imbalanced. But fixing that requires major reforms that address the root of the actual problem, not easy-to-look-at “reforms” that punish a group of people who are just one piece of the perverse puzzle that is major college athletics, especially when those ideas would just incentivize the same behaviors that are problematic now. Penalizing coaches isn’t going to make it better. If anything, it would almost certainly make it worse, turning athletics programs into degree factories where athletes get diplomas but don’t actually learn anything. And handing out more diplomas for the sake of handing out more diplomas doesn’t mean anything if they don’t come with an actual education.