Kentucky Basketball Raised Its GPA By a Tenth of a Point: Does It Matter?

We were among the many media outlets to report on Kentucky's basketball team's dismal fall semester GPA. (We found a snarky t-shirt, too.) But Chris Littmann rightfully noted that it probably doesn't matter, except for the optics: "Unless those GPAs indicate players have somehow run afoul of the rules, why should we, as sports fans, even care whether they're scoring a 2.0 or a 4.0?"

Well, we, the fans, probably shouldn't, and mostly, we don't. Kentucky sure does, though. Why else would UK release the team's spring semester GPA in such laudatory tones? John Calipari writes on his blog:

⇥A GPA just under 2.2 is not what we hoped for. But for the most part, every player improved from the fall semester and most finished strong. With all that was swirling for this team and all the scrutiny and pressure, our guys buckled down and did what they had to move our GPA in the right direction.
The right direction, apparently, is toward a transcript with a couple of Bs tossed in with the Cs. But athletic director Mitch Barnhart gave this quote to the official site of the Wildcats, and it's a little more illuminating.
⇥"Considering all the challenges that go with that transition, and we had some athletes having to take big course loads, I was pleased that we made some progress," Barnhart said. "I'm also pleased that from an (Academic Progress Rate) perspective, our student-athletes took care of their business so that we could continue to have opportunities for other student-athletes coming into the program and we would not face any penalties."

These are athletes, some of whom will remain in school for one year, who are inevitably making room for more athletes. They are brought to UK to play basketball. But does that excuse their GPA, or simply explain it?

It's not entirely fair to expect that athletes should perform at or above the level the typical undergraduate student does; they do more outside of class than the typical undergraduate student, and travel, in particular, can be seriously disruptive. (For reference, that same article gives the average for UK undergrads as 2.95.) But that article also touts a 3.04 average GPA for all Kentucky athletes, so it's possible, as it always has been, for athletes to excel both on the field and off it.

Kentucky bragging on its men's basketball team's minimal improvement seems silly to me, though, when I consider their women's basketball team. They made the Elite Eight just like their male counterparts, and though their spring average is not listed in the article, I'd guess it's around the 2.77 they posted (PDF) in the fall. They also didn't require a ton of spin and extra legwork from the athletic department.

Why Kentucky's men's basketball players didn't perform that well is a question that has a complex answer: it's likely a little of socioeconomic disadvantages setting some athletes up for struggles, a little of athletes being admitted to colleges despite not being fully academically ready for them, a little of basketball being a priority because it brings in the money, and a little of this particular basketball team being about as busy as a non-champion can be. (Their charity work in the wake of Haiti's earthquake was phenomenal.)

And yet, the problem college athletics will always have is that college is part and parcel of the ethos, and the student-athletes—NCAA-mandated emphasis on student—are expected to be students. The NCAA has to realize, on some level, that their obstinacy with that term fuels a fair bit of the media scrutiny over athletes who are poor students, but that's the criticism it invites. So Kentucky has to justify a bunch of kids who want to play basketball as their career just sort of treading water in classes unrelated to that career by saying those kids did what they had to do and showed improvement, because the media has to hold the NCAA to their student-athlete standard. Oh, and the athletes are required to do just well enough to preserve the cycle's sanctity.

None of that has anything more to do with DeMarcus Cousins' grades than DeMarcus Cousins' grades have to do with his earning potential as a lottery pick. Still, we get the sound and fury, signifying nothing, and nothing about that will change.

(HT: Jerry Tipton.)

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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