March Madness will crank back up Thursday night as the Sweet Sixteen first whittles to the Elite Eight and then the much revered Final Four. As a firm believer that athletics can actually provide lessons for students beyond those they can learn in the classroom, I am pulling hard for the Cougars of Brigham Young University.
The NCAA is supposed to be about student-athletes and a level playing field. While the organization struggles to meet its own mission statement, it is nice to see that there are some colleges that have not lost sight of the role amateur athletics should play.
Back in early March, the Cougars suspended its best big man, 6-foot-9 forward Brandon Davies, for breaking the school’s honor code. The much discussed suspension revealed the enormous chasm that exists within college athletics today.
Every student at BYU, whether they are an athlete or not, makes a commitment when they choose to attend the school. That commitment demands that students be honest and attend church regularly in addition to foregoing alcohol, coffee, and Davies’ misstep, engaging in premarital sex.
When confronted with his transgressions, Davies admitted to the behavior (are you listening Bruce Pearl?). When his coach found out, he implemented the school’s honor code (are you listening Jim Tressel?).
In addition, the Cougars of Brigham Young are competing with honest-to-goodness student-athletes. Of the sixteen teams remaining in the tournament, only one can claim a 100% graduation rate for all of its basketball players.
Six of the so-called Sweet Sixteen and 25 of those invited to the “Big Dance” posted graduation rates under 60% for all players. The Cougars’ opponent, Florida, has a graduation rate of 44% overall. For African-American players, the rate is 33%.
As bad as those statistics are, two other members of the Sweet Sixteen, Arizona at 20% and Connecticut (which is on probation for recruiting violations) at 31% rank even lower. A third, Kentucky also posted a 44% mark.
Remember, these games are supposed to feature student-athletes.
So I am pulling hard for BYU, but they are a long shot. Most sportswriters struggled to understand the school’s actions with Davies, but disciplining the Cougars’ key player had them all in agreement in one regard. You see, he wore the number zero, a number experts insisted symbolically represented the chance that BYU would make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Yet here they are, in the Sweet Sixteen and a potential date with destiny if the school can string together two great performances this weekend.
It is a team that epitomizes what college athletics was once all about.
Photo credit: byucougars.com