It was only a basketball game. But when Shabazz Napier spoke into a CBS microphone late Monday night after his team had just won a national championship, he used the moment to broadcast a message that had little to do with sports.
"I want to get everybody’s attention right quick," he said to some 70,000 people gathered here in AT&T Stadium and millions more watching on television. "Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies … This is what happens when you banned us."
Mr. Napier, a senior at the University of Connecticut, was referring to the one-year postseason penalty the National Collegiate Athletic Association issued in 2012 for the team’s failure to meet minimum academic requirements. But his statement magnified deeper questions about academic priorities in big-time college sports and the NCAA’s role in overseeing them.
Connecticut’s opponent on Monday night, the University of Kentucky, has its own set of academic challenges. Its team started five freshman players, all of whom could turn professional this summer after less than one year on the campus. In recent years Kentucky’s men’s basketball program has personified the one-and-done player, as more than a dozen of its freshmen have left college early.
While some former one-and-dones have proved themselves academically, the idea that so many could treat college like a one-year NBA tryout struck some critics as the ultimate NCAA hypocrisy.
"I have nothing against the individual one-and-done student—they’re taking an opportunity that’s being presented," said Gerald Gurney, a former head of academic support for athletes at the University of Oklahoma. "But I have an issue with the coach who says it’s his goal to attract players for one year. He is exempted from any responsibility to have students come to his institution that actually care about an education."
The day before the title game, the NCAA trotted out five college and conference leaders to show support for its long-debated ideas for fixing big-time sports. Among the ideas were proposals to give athletes more time away from their sport, a step that would presumably help them focus more on their studies.
The NCAA has long argued that its athletes are students first and has resisted altering its amateur model. But an increasing number of challenges to that model—underscored by narratives like those at Connecticut and Kentucky—have left the association exposed.
In the locker room after the game, some Connecticut players pointed out the irony of the NCAA's touting of academics while allowing so much missed class time. UConn's team left its campus on Wednesday of last week to prepare for a game on Saturday. Other players described academic schedules apparently consisting of just two classes a week.
The Final Four weekend is not usually a forum for athlete grievances. But the recent player-unionization effort at Northwestern University and other challenges that threaten to give players a share of television revenue have paved a path for more players to agitate for change.
College leaders who initially played down such movements are beginning to sound a different tune. At the tournament this past weekend, several prominent officials told The Chronicle that they feel an urgency to improve conditions for players, with a focus on better aligning education and sports.
‘It’s Not About Being Eligible’
As the celebration was winding down in Connecticut’s locker room, Warde J. Manuel, the university’s athletic director, stepped into a hallway and talked about the academic strides the team had made in his two years at the university.
Before he arrived, the program had deep-rooted problems, with several years in which few players were graduating. To help fix the problems, the university removed the director of academic services for athletics and replaced its top academic adviser for men’s basketball.
Mr. Manuel also helped move the academic-support unit under his purview (in the past, it had reported to the provost). That gives him day-to-day contact with academic issues. He said he meets regularly with problem students and has set higher academic expectations for everyone.
The program’s overall grade-point average is higher than the undergraduate population’s, he said. And he insisted that his players were not just funneled into majors that helped them stay eligible.
"It’s not about being eligible," he said. "It’s about being prepared for the next phase of life."
Despite the improvements, UConn’s players and employees are still smarting from their year of tournament exile. But the fact is, as much as they didn’t like the metric the NCAA had used to punish them, they knew what was required. And they missed the mark.
That nuance was probably lost on fans who listened to the postgame interviews. In fact, the players’ criticisms have already stirred debate about the fairness of the NCAA’s academic policies. And those criticisms could fuel the growing controversy over player rights.
"Colleges have been dismissing these issues for years and years," said Ellen J. Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel University. "But they’re confronting a social-media reality in which athletes are just beginning to get a taste for pushing back. And the possibility is there for them to do it in large numbers."
As workers cleaned up the confetti in the stadium late Monday night, the giant scoreboard above the court played highlights from the tournament, including several moments from the game between Connecticut and Kentucky. The critics said it wasn’t the best game. But thanks to Shabazz Napier, people might remember it for more than that.