Op-Ed

When will we be able to celebrate academic achievement of UK football?

University of Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops celebrated with his team after its win against University of Louisville on Nov. 24. UK will play Penn State University in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.
University of Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops celebrated with his team after its win against University of Louisville on Nov. 24. UK will play Penn State University in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Sports writer Mark Story offered an interesting column recently, comparing University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops, hired in 2012, with other potential hires considered alongside Stoops years ago.

The other candidates, heavily fêted by the media as rising stars and established professionals, have since fallen on hard times by coaching standards. Stoops, by contrast, had some rough years to start, but has since led the team on a respectable upward trend.

Yet for all the gains Stoops and his staff might see in the win-loss column or in television revenue, I think it’s also worthwhile to look at how the football program has fared in terms of education and academics.

I don’t want to diminish the luster of UK football’s recent success on the field. A winning team gives the campus positive energy and draws more attention to the work the school is doing overall.

But however much fun and excitement we have in following college football, we cannot overlook the fact that these teams represent institutions of higher education, and that most players are here ostensibly to learn, not entertain.

The NCAA is required to publish graduation rates every year for every competing institution. Its most recent data for UK represent the cohort that entered college in 2011, with six years being the accepted standard window for completing a degree.

The UK football team in that time has a graduation rate of only 57 percent — hardly the academic equivalent of a New Year’s Day bowl game.

Here I am using the federally defined graduation rate statistics (FGR), which measure athletes’ success alongside the school’s total student body. The NCAA has produced its own statistic for athletes, the Graduate Success Rate (GSR), which usually produces more favorable scores for institutions.

There are pros and cons to both metrics, but the NCAA prefers the GSR because it credits schools for athletes that enter or leave a program in good academic standing, such as in the case of transfer students.

The FGR does not account for such students, which can lead to some head-scratching disparities — such as the UK men’s basketball team, which for the 2011 cohort had a 0 percent federal graduation rate, but an 83 percent rate by GSR standards.

Comparing the results of both statistics can thus be, in the lingo of football commentators, “inconclusive.”

Shaun Harper, of the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity, has looked extensively at graduation rate disparities, particularly in the case of African-American athletes.

His research shows that while the GSR reduces the alarm over athletes’ poor graduation rates, it “does not provide a consistent set of conditions by which to compare student-athletes to undergraduates who do not participate” in athletics.

Likewise, a study of the issue in The Journal of Higher Education found that FGR numbers are more useful for intra-institutional comparisons — mainly the differences between a particular team and that school’s entire student body.

By that suggestion, we might look with a little more sympathy at Stoops’ record. The football team may only be graduating 57 percent of its players, but that only illustrates the larger concern of a 65 percent rate for the entire UK student body.

Similar to Story’s article, we can also look at Stoops compared to some other coaches and programs in the Southeastern Conference. There is, of course, the private school standard-bearer, Vanderbilt (76 percent graduation rate for the football team, and a 92 percent overall).

But we can count ourselves ahead of Arkansas (55 percent for football, 62 percent overall) and Ole Miss (44 percent for football, 60 percent overall).

UK may be in the lower end of the conference, but hopefully Stoops is aware these numbers and will consequently demand better academic performance from his team.

I don’t mean to rain on the bowl parade, or be another Cassandra of college athletics. Historians of higher education have questioned whether football is any more problematic than other ways institutions have used media to promote their brands.

We should, however, pay closer attention to the education athletes are receiving in their time here. As the NCAA reminds us in its many TV spots, most UK football players plan to “go pro in something other than sports.”

Carson Benn is a University of Kentucky doctoral student in history. Reach him at benncarson9@gmail.com

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