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Derrick Z. Jackson

March Madness brings vast graduation gaps

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US Education Secretary Arne Duncan did not dribble around the question when I asked him if collegiate basketball programs with longterm, gross racial disparities in graduation rates should be banned from March Madness. “Where you have insidious gaps, and where there isn’t movement, I think there have to be consequences,’’ Duncan said in a conference call on athletic reform last week.

In a follow-up interview the next day, Duncan added, “If a team can show it’s improving, that’s one thing. But if a team is in the same spot for 10 years, if your dropout rate is such that your graduation rate year after year is 30 [percent], 30, 30, 30, that shows you’re less serious.”

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Duncan’s thoughts, should he continue to voice them, could help move the National Collegiate Athletic Association to take its next major step to end the exploitation of African-American athletes. The NCAA took one meaningful step this year by banning 2011 national champion Connecticut from this year’s tournament because of low longterm graduation rates. They were 11 percent for the entire team last year.

But UConn was the lowest-hanging of the rotten fruit in big-time college sports. There are many more teams that make a mockery of the student-athlete model. Many basketball and football programs have what appear to be acceptable overall team graduation rates of 50 percent or higher, but their numbers hide unacceptable disparities between healthy graduation rates for white players and abysmal ones for black players. The 50-percent standard was advocated for many years by reformers as the minimum acceptable standard for postseason play, but it is not adequate.

For the third straight year in the 68-team field, 21 teams had black graduation rates below 50 percent. They include Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Syracuse, Arizona, and the ostensible “public Ivy” California, along with small-school darlings Butler and LaSalle. Florida was at the bottom of the barrel at zero.

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The NCAA is thus far unmoved by the fact that nearly a third of the field is plagued by such poor performance, which is all the more noteworthy because most of those same 21 schools had a 100 percent graduation rate for their white players. A year and a half ago, I asked NCAA President Mark Emmert if there should be further consequences for programs in the tournament that harbor such racial gaps.

All he said then was, “We don’t subdivide the teams by race or ethnicity or income. We do know when we’ve created and raised those standards, the graduation rates of African-American students have gone up sharply.”

He was right up to a point. This is my 17th year of charting graduation rates for basketball tournament and football bowl teams, and a record 25 men’s programs in the 68-team field for the NCAA basketball tournament had black player graduation rates of at least 80 percent.

These lofty ranks included former whipping posts of mine such as Nevada Las Vegas and Louisville, whose black players had graduation rates of 14 percent and 25 percent in 2006. Other schools that rose to at least 80 percent from 33 percent or below were Kansas, UCLA, Kansas, Creighton, and St. Mary’s.

But the very success of those schools has created an even greater chasm between them and the schools that do not even try. Duncan’s sentiments that the laggards should face penalties were echoed on the conference call by former National Basketball Association player and former US Representative Tom McMillen of Maryland. He recently reviewed the contracts of more than 50 football and basketball coaches in major conferences; he and Duncan coauthored an article in USA Today noting that athletic performance incentives in the contracts average $600,000, compared to $52,000 for incentives promoting academic performance.

Both McMillen and Duncan say that universities do not have to wait for the NCAA to act, and college presidents and athletic directors should make academic incentives a much more significant part of coach contracts. “It’s a reasonably good suggestion to say there should be new sanctions,” McMillen said, “and things like graduation rates should play a much bigger share of a coach’s bonus. You don’t want these pockets of disparity, but right now academic incentives are so minimal it’s like tokenism.”

The NCAA must crack down on the schools that try to get away with chronic disparities. Anything less means that, for all of the progress that has been made, the NCAA still is willing to live with exploitation and tokenism.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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