From the Wall Street Journal
Nuns and NCAA Hoops
How Catholic schools do a better job graduating student-athletes.
By Mark Yost
Mr. Yost is the author of "Varsity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in College Athletics" (Stanford, 2010).
My faith was shaken earlier this year when the New York Times interviewed Sister Rose Ann Fleming. She's the feisty 5- foot-4-inch, 78-year-old nun who makes sure that the basketball players at Xavier University, a Jesuit Catholic college in Cincinnati, spend as much time in class as they do in the gym. Terrell Holloway, a sophomore guard at Xavier, praised Sister Rose in the Times article for keeping on him when he fell behind in a reading class during summer school.
Reading? Summer school?
It forced me to ask myself: Are the Catholic schools, after all, the same as Michigan or Temple when it comes to what kind of athletes they admit? The short answer seems to be yes. The critical difference is that schools like Xavier are making sure that their players receive diplomas.
Xavier's graduation rate for its men's basketball team is 82%, compared with an NCAA average of about 60%. And, on average, the graduation rate of athletes at Catholic schools is higher than at their secular counterparts.
"They may have been attracted to Xavier by a coach," Sister Rose told me, "but from the very start we make it fundamentally clear to them that they are here to receive an education."
She admitted that Xavier does accept students who don't meet its minimum standards in terms of grades or test scores, but pointed out that not all of them are athletes. All come recommended by a guidance counselor, teacher or mentor as a kid who "deserves a break."
"We place a great deal of emphasis on educating the individual," she said. "That's very much a Christian ideal." For those kids who deserve a break, Xavier has a special freshman curriculum that restricts them to 12 credit hours in core courses such as math and English. There's also a 13th credit hour they can take that teaches study skills, writing and note-taking.
To be sure, many universities have athlete tutoring centers. These million-dollar facilities are part of the façade that these kids are students first and athletes second. The difference is that many Catholic schools seem to actually try to make it the reality.
"The balance is making sure in some way that you're not misleading the kids," said Brother John Kane, director of academic advising for student-athletes at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "Can we support them? Can they earn a degree?"
Last year La Salle was five for five: All of its senior basketball players graduated. One was even an Academic All-American. Key to that success, Brother John told me, is the school's Academic Discovery Program, which provides extra help to poor students—but not at the expense of academic standards. "You're always trying to make sure that you're not losing sight of what you're about."
The College of the Holy Cross has been doing just that since it was founded in 1843. While the school does take athletes with poor academic backgrounds who wouldn't otherwise be admitted, the school president, Father Michael McFarland, said there are other students with "equally compelling stories."
"We always have a fair number of students who are the first generation to go to college," he said. "But we won't take anyone who can't make it here. That would just be cruel."
Of course, that has happened. The good brothers at Georgetown mostly looked the other way for three decades while John Thompson built a basketball dynasty with kids who didn't belong at a serious university. Mr. Thompson and Temple coach John Chaney also complained loudly whenever the NCAA tried to tighten academic standards. And right now there's a heated debate going on at Notre Dame about whether its academic standards are too high to field a BCS-caliber football team. Former football coach Charlie Weis is in favor of lowering standards, while other Notre Dame faithful are proud of the school's graduation rate.
Asked if Catholic colleges should be held to a higher standard when it comes to educating athletes, Holy Cross's Father McFarland said: "I think everyone should hold themselves to a higher standard. You have to feel a responsibility for the kids you bring in. You can't just use them and throw them away."