The News & Observer had a piece in last Sunday’s paper about Cullen Jones. For those who aren’t as aware of who Cullen Jones is, he is the ‘other’ swimmer that competed along side Michael Phelps in the Beijing Olympics. Oh yeah, he’s also an alumnus, majoring in English with a minor in psychology. At the Olympics he won a gold medal, swimming the third leg in the 4X100 freestyle relay. It was a big event for America, but probably hit home even harder to his former NC State coaches.
What is interesting is how few headlines referred to Jones as a graduate rather than a former swimmer. I’m not necessarily blaming these news outlets for how they title their articles, but it does glaze over an important fact that there are highly-achieving NC State athletes that stuck around to complete their degrees before moving on to their professional careers.
This resonnates particularly strong when you consider that under Lee Fowler, NC State lagged sorely behind in graduation rates compared to their peers. According to one N&O article, the highest graduation rate among ACC schools is Duke with 81% of their athletes graduating. The lowest among the other 11 institutions was 62% with NC State coming in last at 54%. While some programs have been able to rationalize that lower graduation rates are due to athletic success and more athletes jumping into professional leagues, NC State has also been coming in the lower half of the ACC in the annual Director’s Cup rankings which consider success in all varsity sporting programs.
Graduation has been an albatross about NC State’s neck as it tries to pull itself into the national picture, and the restlessness of many within the fanbase isn’t helping. Decades of mediocrity have made an increasingly vocal section of the fanbase hungry for blood, ethics be damned. This, among other reasons, is why it is so important for our athletic department to highlight the success of outstanding athletes who also chose to graduate. It’s one of the reasons why Phillip Rivers is the perfect commencement speaker for NC State’s graduating class of 2012.
Graduates need to know that the athletes they cheered on are achieving the same thing they are. Recruits need to know that they aren’t just entering a talent mill that has no interest in their education. The public needs to understand that NC State and its fans care just as much about their athlete’s future as we do about their present. We have an image problem and it needs to end now.