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Athletes are getting degrees, but does that actually mean anything?

The NCAA brags about giving athletes the opportunity to graduate, but it ignores the fact that many of those degrees are relatively worthless.

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

It -- or some iteration of it -- was said over and over again at Wednesday's Senate Commerce Committee hearing: "Let's not forget that the NCAA has provided so many athletes the chance to get their degrees."

That was NCAA president Mark Emmert's justification for the continuance of the collegiate model as we know it, a refrain echoed by Senators scared by a world in which athletes are allowed to receive compensation for what they do.

We could talk about how "we do this thing right, so everything we do wrong is justified" is not exactly a compelling argument. We could talk about how athletes receiving compensation for their already intense time demands has nothing to do with their capacity to do their school work. We could talk about the numerous cases of academic fraud within NCAA member schools.

What we're going to talk about is the NCAA's free pass on its claim that it's doing a great service to all athletes, just because those athletes get degrees. The reality? Simply getting a degree doesn't necessarily cut it.

The NCAA's argument ignores the fact that some degrees are worth far more than others. Athletes are routinely clustered into majors that don't set them up to succeed later in life, mainly because those majors are easy enough for athletes to focus on their sport.

If an athlete majors in interdepartmental studies or general studies, either because that's all they could handle or the coach tells them to, has the school done that student a service? Is that athlete really going to have a "degree to fall back on" if sports don't work out, as the NCAA often touts?

The NCAA and its member schools will have you believe that if they help graduate an athlete they have done that athlete life's greatest favor. If the athlete even asks for the right to bargain, it would be considered an act of sheer entitlement. If all degrees were treated equally, that argument would have at least some legitimacy. Given how the academic experience for many athletes actually works, it could not be further from the truth.

Former Florida State football player and Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle was at Wednesday's hearing, and as he said, you would think he would be singing the NCAA's praises as a success story. However, while Rolle was in a fortunate situation and set up to succeed, many of his teammates were not and often graduated with relatively worthless degrees.

The first response to this quote will be someone saying something like this: "Well it's their fault they did nothing with their opportunities." That would be true if the athletes wasted their abilities, and maybe it is true in some cases. However, many schools recruit athletes who are in no way able to do college work (the latest examples have come at Oklahoma State and North Carolina). Former North Carolina football player Devon Ramsay saw that firsthand.

The result is a focus on eligibility rather than education. That isn't to say schools are committing academic fraud to keep athletes eligible, just that they put them in easy majors — and things that really aren't even majors, like general studies. These majors allow players to get easy degrees that give them little chance of finding a job consistent with their peers, many of whom had more time and academic prowess to spend on more challenging majors or will go to graduate school.

Not only has the NCAA done a good job of framing a "success" as receiving a degree rather than receiving the education necessary to get a job, it has also created its own graduation rate to paint a better picture than the federal graduation rates. While the NCAA claims athletes graduate at a higher rate than the general student body, the federal rates show the opposite.

Throughout Division I's Football Bowl Series programs, the 2013 football report found (findings are published quarterly by sport), athletes who entered college in 2005 graduated at rates 18 percentage points lower than non-athletes, and black players lagged by 24 percentage points.

This makes clear what should be already: The NCAA and its member schools care far more about the appearance of educating athletes than they do actually educating athletes. The goal is to win, and to make winning look good in the process, regardless of the reality.

If the NCAA really did care about its athletes' futures, it would allow them to profit off their talent while they were in college. The NCAA would recognize that their time demands, and in some cases their inability to handle the workload of a major that could get them a good job, might inhibit their well-being after graduating. They could spend even more money on tutors and internship programs and make sure athletes really are ready to enter the workforce, rather than pretend players benefit from coaches making more money.

But they don't have to do that. The NCAA knows they have an endless supply of athletes who recognize college as the only way for them to achieve the dream of becoming a professional athlete. Then they can keep on talking about graduation rates, and keep pretending they're doing a service to everyone who walks out with a degree.