The NCAA likes to call them "student-athletes," suggesting that the student part of their college careers is more important than the athlete part. And, in an ideal world, it certainly would be.
But the number of young men and women who go from being described as student-athletes to being called graduated student-athletes is, at many colleges and universities, still embarrassingly small. Especially in the big-money sports of basketball and football, where the talents and efforts of players earn their institutions millions of dollars more than the athletes are getting in free tuition, far too few athletes end their college careers with either a legitimate hope of pro sport stardom or even a simple bachelor's degree.
Give the NCAA credit, though, for not only counting the number of athletes who actually earn diplomas from their institutions, but also for releasing those stats and for setting the public goal of increasing the rate every year.
The latest round of statistics, released last week, shows the overall graduation rate for Division I student-athletes who entered college in the years 1998-2001 to be 78 percent. That's up one percentage point from the year before, but still shy of the 80 percent goal set by NCAA President Myles Brand.
The graduation rates for student-athletes vary a great deal from one institution to another, and from one sport to another.
Just to look at a couple of local examples, the NCAA's measure of such things shows that the University at Buffalo graduated 61 percent of the football players who entered school in the years 1998-2001. That's below the national average of 67 percent for college football players, but well ahead of the 54 percent rate for the defending national champion football team from Louisiana State University, or the 50 percent who graduate from the current No. 1-ranked football school, Texas.
Up the way, the private, much smaller Niagara University graduates 100 percent of its varsity basketball players -- men and women -- along with 100 percent of its men's golf, men's track and cross country, men's tennis and women's lacrosse teams.
One unavoidable interpretation of the figures is that, the more the college makes in revenue from its giant stadiums and massive TV deals, the smaller the chance that the players will end their years of eligibility with a real sheepskin.
That's not a source of pride for institutions that are supposed to be serving, rather than exploiting, their students.