Athletes' academic ineligibility a growing concern

The Syracuse basketball program has become synonymous with two words over the past five months: success and scandal.

On Tuesday morning, ESPN reported that sophomore center Fab Melo was ruled ineligible by Syracuse to participate in the 2012 NCAA tournament.

This was far from a surprise to those who have followed Syracuse basketball this season. Melo missed three games this season — one of them being one of the team’s two losses — because of academic issues.

This “Melo-drama” is far from the first major incident the Orange have dealt with this season. Just weeks after the beginning of the 2011-12 season, longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine was placed on administrative leave from the program for allegations of child molestation. In early March, the NCAA investigated the program after Yahoo! Sports reported at least 10 former athletes since 2001 had failed their drug tests. The Orange explained the NCAA’s investigation did not include any of its current players, but the episode was undoubtedly a headache for the team.

Now, there is the academic ineligibility of arguably the team’s best player — and subsequently the most important cog in a run at a national title — that is causing turmoil for the team.

The current situation is the icing on the cake, though. The prior two incidents, while unfortunate and frustrating, were clearly not very detrimental to the team. The Orange finished the regular season with a 31-2 record (17-1 in Big East play), a No. 2 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

This is why the dismissal of Melo from participating in the Big Dance is the biggest hindrance in Syracuse’s quest for its second national title. Melo, who averages 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game, is the defensive anchor for the team. Yes, the team can still rely on the offensive firepower of senior guard Kris Joseph and sophomore guard Dion Waiters, but without its starting center, and recently named Big East Defensive Player of the Year, the team’s dynamic changes completely.

The 7-foot Brazilian’s ineligibility also poses another serious question: Just what is happening in the academic world of college basketball?

ASU freshman guard and highly touted prospect Jahii Carson was ruled academically ineligible for the entire season. Though Carson was allowed to practice with the team, his presence on the court during games was sorely missed as the team sputtered to a pitiful 10-21 overall record and a first-round exit in the Pac-12 tournament.

There’s no telling if the Sun Devils would have been much better this season with Carson, but they couldn’t have done much worse.

I understand college athletes are held to different academic standards than those of the ordinary student. The notion that student athletes do less work than the average college student and generally don’t care about their education has been in place as long as collegiate sports has been around. But if the objective of these highly talented athletes is to turn professional, lack of playing time does nothing but hurt their chances at achieving that goal. Simply put: Achieving the modest academic standards set forth by teams should be a centralized focus for every collegiate athlete.

It should be at the forefront of every athlete’s mind that they are on one of the biggest national stages in sports. There are devoted fan bases counting on them to produce victories. There are other teammates doing their parts to remain productive members of their teams. At the very least, there should be enough respect from these athletes for their fans and teammates to do everything possible to contribute.

I realize I’m far from the first person to advocate a call to action for student athletes to place a greater emphasis on education. Fans, coaches and scouts all have a vested interest in these players performing to the best of their abilities on the court, and without the proper grades performing at all suddenly becomes a difficult task.

Only time will tell what the fate of Melo’s ineligibility will be for Syracuse, but it certainly doesn’t help matters. If the top-seeded Orange suffer an early exit from the tournament, Melo’s lack of effort in the classroom should serve as a wake-up call to student athletes everywhere.

 

Reach the columnist at tpaxton@asu.edu

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