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Learning and Playing

One of the scandals of American higher education, until relatively recently, was the willingness of many major colleges and universities to hand out athletic scholarships, tap the talent for their sports programs, then do little to help these kids graduate.

Things have gotten better since individual schools and the National Collegiate Athletic Association started setting rules that tie academic performance to athletic eligibility. Graduation rates for athletes are way up since the early 1980s.

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But controversy still swirls, as the debate stirred by a federal court ruling in Philadelphia shows. The court threw out an NCAA rule that requires incoming freshman competing for scholarships to have a minimum score on the SAT or ACT exam. This discriminated against African-American student athletes, the court said.

That's an arguable point. "Cultural biases" in these tests have been at issue for years. Beyond that, the tests aren't sure gauges of ability, or desire, to learn. But the broader point of upholding standards before students are awarded "scholarships" is critical - unless schools want to tumble back toward exploiting athletes for a few years without moving them toward the most tangible benefit college offers: a degree. Few of these young people, after all, will move on to the pros.

Other NCAA requirements remain intact, such as a high school record that includes passing grades in core academic subjects. Individual colleges can set their own, tougher standards. High schools have a key role, too. If all secondary schools demanded at least a "C" average from athletes, the studies-sports connection could be instilled early.

Finally, the NCAA should consider linking the numbers of athletic scholarships allowed a college or university to the graduation rate of its athletes. That would nudge schools that still graduate athletes at an abysmal rate to shape up.

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