gua: Radical ideas needed to improve NCAA grad rates

Published: Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 3:28 p.m.

For a brief moment last Saturday, a wine salesman, a writer and an industrial psychologist, all north of 40, jumped, screamed and high-fived around the living room of a Chicago condo and watched the Northern Iowa-Kansas game.

No money was on the line; no alma mater reputation was at stake.

This is the NCAA basketball tournament, where grown men and women work themselves into a frenzy watching players they'll never meet representing schools they've never seen.

But this three-week festival of athletic skill - one of the greatest sporting events of the year - continues to be tarnished by the indefensible graduation gap between black and white athletes.

In its annual report released at tournament time, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports found that of the 65 teams in the field, 45 teams graduated 70 percent or more of their white players, while only 20 graduated at least 70 percent of their black players.

In men's basketball, schools like Kansas and Duke received plaudits for graduating a high percentage of their players, both white and black. Kansas graduates 67 percent of its black players and 75 percent of its white players. Duke graduates 89 percent of its black players and 100 percent of its white players. (Duke's basketball team, by the way, brought $11 million into the school's coffers, money that goes to support non-revenue sports.)

But Ohio State, Michigan State and Kentucky do very poorly for their black athletes.

Ohio State graduates 50 percent of its black players but 100 percent of its white ones. Michigan State graduates 44 percent of its black players but 100 percent of its white ones. And Kentucky graduates only 18 percent of its black players versus 100 percent of its white players.

Schools shouldn't be punished for students leaving for big money in the pros or, worse, having athletes transfer. Athletes do so for a variety of reasons, including familial needs. These two factors hardly explain the graduation gap.

Black athletes do graduate at a higher rate than their non-athletic brethren - a fact that shouldn't be held up as a triumph. Division I programs have dedicated tutors, study sessions and, in some cases, sympathetic faculty to help guide the student end of college life. This makes the ghastly graduation gap look even more appalling. Coaches and administrators ought to hang their heads, but players can't walk away from this, either. They are complicit in the charade.

Sadly, this isn't anything new.

I've seen versions of these same pathetic stats every year since the early 1990s, beginning with the now defunct Emerge magazine's revelatory list of the 50 worst schools with regard to graduating black athletes in football, basketball and track and field.

And I've seen or heard the same response - shock, shame and blame - so many times that I can mime the reaction of the various actors, from coaches to college presidents to columnists and talking heads.

The only thing new this year is Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's suggestion of kicking out teams with less than a 40 percent graduation rate. Call it No Athlete Left Behind. But this idea would end up punishing some of the athletes that are actually doing well, even on academically underperforming teams. The revenue fallout would be incredible. Northern Iowa's win over Kansas was an on-court and financial success, according to the Des Moines Register.

"Northern Iowa already has earned $221,940 and would receive an additional $110,500 if the team makes it to the Final Four," the paper reports. But the entire Missouri Valley Conference benefits.

"Northern Iowa's success also has provided the conference with an additional $3.9 million," adds the Register. "Because each conference member receives an equal share, Northern Iowa's share so far is about $390,000." The return-on-investment for schools in the tournament can be significant, particularly at state-funded universities where budgets are being slashed. Every bit helps.

Here's a solution: End the pretentious foolishness of amateurism and take the student out of the athlete.

Scrap the arcane eligibility requirements and the pretense of amateurism. If you can play, you're in.

Class? No class.

Make these athletes limited-term employees, with a decent wage and benefits, including tuition reimbursement.

Of course, this is an absurd idea. But it is no less absurd than the nearly inert reaction by colleges over the last two decades.

As much as I love watching the tournament, the reprehensible farce in the classroom haunts the games.

Surely, sustained failure can't continue to be the best course.

Fred McKissack is a former Progressive magazine editor and editorial writer. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.

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