Isiah Thomas: Education of Athletes is Crucial and Goes Far Beyond What the NCAA/APR Tell usMarch 29, 2014
On May 19th of this year, I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a Master's in The Cultural Studies of Sports and Education. I spent the last two years working at building my mind and improving my academic abilities. A few people have asked why I went back to school and sought my master's degree. The answer goes back to my childhood and my mother, who in the midst of raising nine kids and us living below the poverty line she was insistent about one thing: her children would finish school. An education, she said, was to be our foundation in life. I believe that!
That lesson never left me. After leaving Indiana University to play for the Detroit Pistons after my sophomore year in 1981, I returned every summer until I earned my bachelor's degree in 1986. As a coach, in the pros and in the college ranks, I stressed the importance of education to my players. Many players were talented, but none would escape the strong advice my mother gave me decades ago. My studies allowed me to see in great depth the various obstacles that scholarship college athletes -- largely black and largely poor in the case of basketball -- face. I knew it from my own experiences, but as a student I studied it.
As a coach at FIU I was acutely aware of the academic difficulties my student athletes were facing. I believed, and believe still, that helping my students navigate those obstacles and supporting them through it all was a central part of my job. I did both and neither are measured by the APR (Academic Progress Report). My goal was to guide them into manhood and citizenship. My student athletes would become men under my watch and they did.
By the end of three years with me they were full agents of their academic and athletic lives, staging walkouts in protest, writing a letter to the president, and demanding meetings to have their voices heard. Blessedly, by the time I was fired the most important work I had to do was already done and cannot be undone. Their agency and manhood cannot be measured by the APR.
The irony of these allegations is that as a graduate student in education and sport I am acutely aware of the importance of academics in the lives of athletes. As a coach I made it my mission to educate and guide my student athletes' academic lives.
With that said I am truly disturbed, not only as an advocate of education but as a student myself, by the misleading media reports that my student athletes at FIU were failing and that their academics and I were the cause of the team not being able to participate in post-season play next year.
If one were to look into this issue deeper, it would be easy to see that what has been reported about what happened under my tenure as coach of FIU does not tell the full story. The problem is that the APR is not really understood by the mainstream public or even by some members of the media in this case. I wish to point out some facts concerning the APR and how retention, not academics, was the cause of FIU's poor numbers.
- The Academic Progress Rate (APR) is a term-by-term measure of eligibility and retention of scholarship players.
- It does not measure graduation rates among students.
- Therefore a player may not be eligible to play one term, and this would affect the APR but he could still graduate.
- If a player "transfers" to another institution that decision also affects the original school's APR, meaning that transfers (retention of players) would bring the rate down.
- The APR is negatively affected then by eligibility and transfers. I took over a program already on academic probation and improved the APR number my first year at FIU.
- Then, when I was fired by Pete Garcia at FIU, seven scholarship players transferred in protest. This had the biggest effect on FIU's APR, not grades but retention. In fact, many of the students who wanted to transfer were told that they would not be given their releases because it would affect FIU's APR. Seven scholarship students left in anger without getting a release, thus plummeting the APR score.
That is the explanation of FIU's APR and current NCAA ban from post-season play, but it is not an examination of my record with the school's players. Of the 21 players I worked with, I am very proud to say that 19 of those young men graduated. While at FIU, I also started collaboration with professors from FIU and the University of California at Berkeley's School of Education to work with our players on strengthening their academics. There is no APR measurement for this work, but I believe that it was vital to our student athletes.
The NCAA's efforts to insist on better graduation rates and stronger academic performance among its institutions is something I fully support. It is important, however, to understand exactly what the APR measures. Whether I am the coach at a college, the NBA or working with students on the streets of Chicago, I will always stress the importance of education. My mother would not have had it any other way and neither would any of the parents whose sons I coached and graduated from FIU.