Some six years after the NCAA warned members to get serious about graduating student-athletes or lose scholarships and face a postseason ban, here’s the list of Division I schools that have been sent to sit in the corner at tournament time:
If Education Secretary Arne Duncan had his way, the list wouldn’t have ended with one school. It would have had an even dozen names on it, including luminaries such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisville and Maryland.
Duncan, a White House insider and basketball-playing buddy of President Barack Obama, is too politically savvy to believe his proposal is going anywhere. But that didn’t stop him from asking the question.
“One out of five men’s teams in the NCAA tournament has graduated less than 40 percent of their players in recent years. If you can’t manage to graduate two out of five players,” Duncan said, “how serious are the institution and the coach about their players’ academic success?”
NCAA spokesman Bob Williams began answering him Thursday by reiterating that the organization feels Duncan’s pain. It just doesn’t like the way he did the math.
According to the NCAA’s calculations, seven of the dozen schools on Duncan’s list would have been OK and five would have been on probation.
“We feel like we’ve got a better measurement of what’s happening right now,” Williams said.
Duncan’s 40 percent figure is based on a measure called the Graduation Success Rate (GSR). It tracked the progress of ballplayers from four entering freshman classes during a six-year period beginning in 1999.
But when the NCAA metes out justice, it uses the Academic Progress Rate (APR), which measures how a school is performing over the last four years. Programs are graded each year on how many athletes are academically eligible and making progress toward a degree. Failing grades for consecutive years opens up a school to sanctions.
What’s wrong, no matter which measurement you use, is that the NCAA and the university presidents who control it aren’t doing enough. Besides banning Centenary from this year’s tournament, the NCAA has taken scholarships away from Georgia Tech, Tennessee and New Mexico State. That’s it.
“These aren’t NBA teams, they’re college teams. Let’s not forget that,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “The universities they’re attached to are supposed to educate everybody who walks through their doors.”
It was Lapchick’s research, in part, that spurred Duncan’s proposal earlier this week, particularly the disparities between graduation rates for black and white players. And Duncan comes by his concerns honestly.
He learned the game at playgrounds on Chicago’s tough South Side, then played college ball at Harvard and professionally in Australia before returning to his hometown to run the school system. He knows firsthand what it did for him and any number of others, including Kansas senior point guard Sherron Collins.
“He’s a kid I’ve played with since he was a freshman in high school,” Duncan told USA Today. “He’s a winner. I watched him mature, and I’ve seen what he’s accomplished.”
To be fair, the NCAA push to boost athletes’ performance in the classroom has produced plenty of similar success stories. Lapchick noted that athletes are more than keeping up with the rest of the student body and that their grades have improved across the board. Even the troubling gap between white and black students is narrowing.
What bothers him still is why there isn’t more pressure brought to bear. Few of the kids who dazzle the nation during the next few weeks will matriculate to the NBA. For too many, a college scholarship is their one and only chance they’ll get to cash in on their skills.
“Obviously, our problems with education are a lot bigger than just the universities. Some of the kids they’re getting, especially from some urban high school districts, don’t arrive ready to compete with regular students. But that’s what education is about,” Lapchick said. “The point, ultimately, should be to graduate these kids.”
The average student now takes 5 1/2 years to graduate from college. Recognizing that, a number of schools are effectively guaranteeing student-athletes a fifth year on scholarship.
If the NCAA wants to demonstrate its seriousness, making that practice mandatory — simply adding a few lines to an already overcrowded rulebook — would be a good place to start.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org