U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a former college basketball player, condemned the practice of allowing college basketball teams to compete in NCAA postseason tournaments even if they are graduating less than their student athletes in the program.
And he called the growing graduation gap between white and black players “unconscionable.”
On a media call Thursday, Duncan said the issue was personal. Co-captain of the Harvard basketball team and a first-team Academic All-American, Duncan also played professional basketball in Australia. He grew up playing with guys on Chicago’s Southside, where his mother runs an after-school center. (She still is operating it today.)
“I can’t not speak out on something that I have seen from the time I was a child,” he said. He recalled playing with athletes on street courts who helped earn their colleges millions of dollars only to be leave school without a degree. Some of those star athletes died early, he said.
“The difference between those who did well and those who did not was whether they received their college degree,” Duncan said.
Duncan wants teams that are not on track to graduate at least half their players — as measured by an academic progress index — to be banned from postseason play. Duncan also wants the allocation of tournament winnings to weigh not only a team’s record on the court, but the academic progress and standing of team members.
He supports the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics’ recommendation that teams must be on track to graduate at least half of their players to participate in postseason play. Duncan said that $179 million in tournament dollars over the last five years went to colleges that were not on track to graduate half their players. While the NCAA has disputed that figure, Duncan said it doesn’t matter if it is $179 million or $80 million. It’s too much to reward programs for academic failure.
Duncan called for a culture change in the NCAA, saying that only one in 6,000 collegiate teams was banned from postseason play due to academics last year.
Also on the media call was Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.
Lapchick is the author of the studies released early this week on grad rates among the NCAA tournament teams, including UGA, which is graduating 100 percent of its white basketball players, but only 30 percent of its African-Americans.
With an overall grad rate among its basketball players of 36 percent, UGA posts one of the worst records, according to the study. Top schools for graduating players are Belmont, Brigham Young, University of Illinois, Notre Dame, Utah State, Villanona, Wofford, Vanderbilt, Xavier and the University of Arkansas
While he said there’s been progress in the college graduation rates, Lapchick warned of a growing gap between white and black basketball players. While the grad rate is 91 percent for white players, it is 59 for black players, and widening.
While there is a 32 point graduation gap in men’s basketball, the gap is only 7 percent in women’s college basketball, he said
Lapchick said there has to be pressure to force recalcitrant college programs to pay more attention to academics.
“The real madness is that we tolerate coaches who prepare athletes for victory on the court and failure in life,” said Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP. “There are schools that graduate 100 percent of their black basketball players. It happens because coaches decide to make sure that the young men are prepared for victory in life and not just on the court.”
Duncan said that with so many colleges getting it right, there are no excuses for the 6 to 9 percent that are not, accusing them of “skewed priorities.”
Duncan said money is the key to forcing teams to do better by their athletes. “Follow the money,” he said. “If they were prohibited from participating in tournaments if they couldn’t maintain a minimum of half their students graduating, I absolutely guarantee that in a year you would see these programs dramatically improving their graduation rates.”
Until money is at stake for these college basketball programs, Duncan said, “We’ll continue to get lip service.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog