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On Jan. 5 the National Collegiate Athletic Association will meet in San Diego. And schools in the NCAA's Division I - the big-time sports programs - will vote on proposals to raise academic standards for student athletes.

They will encounter well-intentioned arguments as to why this step should not be taken. They should stand firm against such rhetoric.Colleges and universities must somehow convince the public that their primary mission is to provide formal academic education - not to dispense athletic entertainment.

In truth, there is no demand from our sports-crazed populace to strengthen academic requirements for student athletes. Some lip service is paid to the ideal of the student athlete, but when push comes to shove the public says, "Let the kids play."

Several years ago the NCAA President's Commission - of which I was a member - convinced the NCAA to pass Proposition 48. This legislation required athletes to have a 2.0 or "C" average in a high school core curriculum and a combined score of at least 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test to be eligible to play college sports as a freshman.

This modest standard has had a positive impact. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Sports recently reported that high school students and the colleges and universities that recruit them are adjusting to meet the humble hurdle that Proposition 48 imposes.

In San Diego the NCAA will introduce Proposition 16, which again raises the academic standards. High school students will need a 2.5 average instead of a 2.0 to be eligible to play as freshmen. They will also be required to take more math and English courses in high school.

There is opposition to Proposition 16, much of it centering on the idea that higher academic standards reduce minority enrollment in college. As The New York Times pointed out, however, of the 1.3 million African-Americans in college, only about 15,000 are athletes. "The question," said The Times in an editorial, "is how to hold athletes to the same standards as other students."

There is evidence that Proposition 48 has not had the negative impact on African-Americans predicted by many of the legislation's detractors,

and even higher academic standards will help the vast majority of student athletes reach their potential. By passing Proposition 16 the NCAA can send a message to:

- schools and communities that grades count.

- colleges and universities that they have a responsibility to help their athletes succeed academically.

- the sports-loving public that academia is serious about the concept of the student-athlete.