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Bowl formula should include academics

On Dec. 10, in the middle of final exams, our students went uncharacteristically crazy. The reason was the semifinals of the Division I-AA football playoffs and the ESPN2 telecast of the game. The College of William & Mary is not often on the nation's athletic center stage.

Our football team accomplished two notable feats this season. First, we won 11 games, including two playoff games. Second, according to NCAA data, our football program is one of two in Division 1 with a 100 percent graduation rate (the other school is Duke). We are proud of both accomplishments.

Unfortunately, viewers of ESPN2 heard only about the team's exploits on the football field. The players' sterling performance in the classroom was never mentioned. We think that the National Collegiate Athletic Association should require broadcaster to mention the team's graduation rate along with the other statistics.

Other proposals on this issue would go much further. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation recommends that eligibility for football bowl games be reserved for teams with graduation rates of at least 50 percent. Using this criterion, nearly half of the teams in bowls this year would not be eligible to participate. The colleges and universities whose teams would be excluded would lose a great deal of money. Last year the 28 college bowls distributed more than $185-million to NCAA schools.

We would like to see graduation rates added to the formula for the Bowl Championship Series. This year there were three undefeated contenders for the two top spots. If graduation rates were added to the mix, Auburn and the University of Southern California, both with 59 percent graduation rates, might be squaring off for the national title, leaving out Oklahoma, with its 43 percent graduation rate.

The Knight Foundation proposal and altering the BCS selection criteria are radical ideas because they would change the allocation of money. For this reason, we suspect that neither has much chance of becoming NCAA policy.

Our proposal for announcing graduation rates does not affect the flow of funds. Each time the University of Oklahoma's football team appears on TV the audience would hear about its 43 percent graduation rate, but Oklahoma would still earn an undiminished share of the TV revenue. Our approach relies on shame, or its opposite _ public approval _ as a motivator.

The football graduation rate can't be corrupted or tweaked by the schools because it is calculated using an NCAA formula. And football squads are large enough that averaging the last two to four years of data gives a reliable picture of the overall academic standing of the program.

The objective of college athletics should be success on the playing field and success in the classroom. At the very least, announcing the graduation rate would provide an interesting counterpoint to the promotional puff pieces the institutions craft to accompany televised games.

The NCAA likes to say each of its athletes will become a professional but that for most of them the profession won't be athletics. That might be true for the ones who succeed academically. The task is to find a reasonable mechanism that will ensure that more of them graduate.

Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman teach in the economics department of the College of William & Mary.

Special to the Los Angeles Times

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