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  • Excellence in classroom should coexist with March Madness

    Each March, I author a widely quoted study on the graduation rates of the men and women playing on the teams that make it to the NCAA Division I basketball tournaments. The study examines the academic performance of male and female basketball student athletes and of African-American and white basketball student athletes. When I first started doing this, the news for the men’s teams was almost always bad; the women have always done well.

    One of the legacies of the late Myles Brand’s presidency at the NCAA will be the great improvement of the graduation rates for men. However, one of his frustrations was that no matter how much that improved, the gap between the graduation rates for African-American and white basketball student athletes remained enormous. This year was no exception.

    There is a lot of good news, especially for the women’s teams:

    19 women’s tournament teams had a 100 percent graduation rate for their teams.

    58 women’s teams (94 percent of the tournament schools for which data was available) and 44 men’s teams (69 percent) graduated at least 50 percent of their basketball student athletes.

    57 of the women’s teams (92 percent) and 37 of the men’s teams (58 percent) graduated at least 60 percent.

    51 of the women’s teams (82 percent) and 29 of the men’s teams (45 percent) graduated at least 70 percent.

    84 percent of white and 56 percent of African-American male basketball student athletes graduated, up 6 percent and 2 percent, respectively, from last year’s survey.

    90 percent of white and 78 percent of African-American female basketball student athletes graduated, up 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

    Basketball players graduated at a higher rate than non-athletes, no matter what the race or gender.

    Graduation rates are good indicators but are not perfect because they reflect players who have left school. When you add in a look at the academic progress rate, you can get a balanced picture because APR looks at current players. It sheds light on a Kentucky team that, according to the graduation success rate, graduated only 31 percent of its immediate past players. However, its 979 APR was among the top 10 in the tournament and placed UK ahead of the Ivy League champion, Cornell.

    Kentucky’s academic progress rate of 979 puts
    it in the top 10 of teams in the NCAA tournament.

    Under the APR reforms that Brand instituted at the NCAA, penalties are now allowed in the form of a loss of scholarships for schools that do not graduate their student athletes. I have no doubt that many coaches responded by devoting more resources to academic support units on campuses and recruiting athletes who had a real chance to graduate.

    But then there is the bad news.

    Three of the women’s teams and 12 of the men’s teams graduated less than 40 percent. In addition, the graduation-rate gaps between African-American and white basketball players on the men’s and women’s teams were a staggering 28 percent and 12 percent, respectively. The gap on the men’s teams increased by 4 percent from last year.

    Furthermore, 14 women’s tournament teams and 37 men’s teams have a 20 percentage point or greater gap between the graduation rates of white and African-American basketball student athletes. Of those, eight women’s teams and 28 men’s teams have a 30 percentage point or greater gap.

    That is unacceptable and, in part, led to a joint conference recently between the media, myself, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and NAACP President Ben Jealous. I subsequently spoke to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been concerned with this issue for more than a decade and says “March Madness leads to May sadness.”

    Duncan proposed that teams should be banned from the tournament if they graduate less than 40 percent of their players. In spite of the fact that 40 percent is a low bar, many argued that this was not fair because it penalized schools because of their past. I think we need to use the APR for such sanctions, perhaps with two years to settle in before being banned. The APR score that is the equivalent of a 45 percent graduation rate is 900. Since the APR cut score is 925, using the 900 APR score would be fair and is another low bar. In this men’s tournament, three teams were below 900: UC-Santa Barbara, Morgan State and New Mexico State.

    As the former school superintendent in Chicago, Duncan knows that one root of the problem is that schools are recruiting many of our African-American basketball players from inner-city areas. Too many urban schools are underfunded, have less technology and, often, less-effective teachers such that they cannot level the academic playing field. This makes it far more difficult for student athletes and students from urban schools in general to be successful.

    Duncan is directly addressing this as education secretary, and we are fortunate to have him. He knows it can be done. It was recently reported that at Urban Prep Academy for Young Men, Chicago’s only public all-male, all-African-American high school, all 107 seniors earned spots at 72 colleges and universities across the nation. It opened in 2006, when Duncan was school superintendent.

    In the meantime, admissions officers need to admit only students who can succeed academically.

    But to get to the heart of this we need March Madness fans and sponsors to step up and say, Yes we want the excitement that the tournament brings, but we also want an equal playing field for all those student athletes competing on the courts to also prevail in our classrooms.

    Richard E. Lapchick ( is the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, which annually publishes the study “Academic Progress/Graduation Success Rates of Division I NCAA Women’s and Men’s Basketball Tournament Teams.” Lapchick is the author of 15 books that focus primarily on racial and gender issues and ethics in college sports.

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  • Hoops 101: Curriculum for new NCAA tourney

    Here is a simple suggestion for a new-look NCAA basketball tournament, adding more fun — and funds — to March Madness.

    1. Invite 101 teams.

    2. Give the top 27 teams a first-round bye.

    3. Schedule 37 games for Wildcard Wednesday.

    4. The 37 Wildcard Wednesday winners join the 27 bye teams (64 in all) and play next on Weekend One of the tournament.

    5. Weekend Two would be the Sweet Sixteen weekend, and Weekend Three is when The Final Four would take place.

    Inviting 101 teams eliminates the possibility that a team or two on the bubble will not get a chance to go to the Big Dance. Plus, ahem, there is some serious money to be made on Wildcard Wednesday for a lot of schools.

    I would also suggest that the 37 losing teams from Wildcard Wednesday be invited to play in the NIT. The NIT committee could invite 11 other teams that were not part of the field of 101 teams, which would give the NIT a total of 48 teams. If I were a senior on one of those 37 Wildcard Wednesday losing teams, I would vote yes to play in the NIT, so I could get one last chance to play in a meaningful game for my school. It would be an honor, and it would be fun. (And, who knows? I might end up sinking my last collegiate jump shot at Madison Square Garden. Not a bad memory to have, I’d say.)

    Rob Nelson ( is the co-inventor of Big League Chew Bubble Gum. He was a left-handed philosophy major — and pitcher — at Cornell University, Class of 1971. Rob’s hope that The Big Red reach this year’s Sweet Sixteen was fulfilled.

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  • How to infuse hope in the Big Dance

    How do we create an expanded national NCAA basketball tournament with flair without either diluting the regular season into oblivion or reducing the first round of the tournament to an embarrassing slaughter fest of “24-seeds” against the goliaths of Division I basketball? Simple: start the Big Dance with a Cinderella Dance.

    Whether to expand the NCAA basketball tournament from its 65-team format is a question that gains momentum each year. But with the likes of North Carolina, UCLA and Connecticut out of the tournament altogether in 2010, it begs for a solution more than ever.

    The answer is at once simple, easy, and a TV bonanza. And it is hiding in plain sight: the NIT. Reserve up to four NCAA slots for the final four of the NIT and suddenly there are more Cinderellas, more up-and-comers, and more teams with momentum, not to mention more ratings, money and fan interest.

    Sports as entertainment are all about selling hope. With the NIT suddenly infused with relevance, it will mean much more than just a shot at the penultimate NIT tin medal. Keep 32 teams in the NIT, but now give them all a second chance of making the NCAA tournament. It only takes three layers of games to whittle a 32-team field down to the final four. It could all be done in as little as six days or, if necessary, a day or two more.

    This way there will be no artificial weak sisters playing Kansas or Duke, yet 92 or 93 teams will have hope. Forget the NIT championship game; who cares? Not even the winners care. Take the battle-tested last four teams standing, and give them a really meaningful prize: four slots in the NCAA. It would be both interesting and convenient to give all four teams the 16th seed. The top NCAA seeds would all play against proven teams with momentum, setting the stage for much more relevant, if not exciting games. But if “protecting” the No. 1 seeds is an overriding concern, reserve the 12th or 14th slots instead, a little harder logistically, but possibly more appropriate.

    Either way, a true Cinderella might stay hot and have a genuine chance in the NCAA tournament. Moreover, some down-on-their luck powerhouses would suddenly have one final shot at relevance: enter UCLA and North Carolina, for example. Wouldn’t the networks and the NCAA like to claw back those big-school viewers — and their wallets — for a few games?

    But what about the incumbent problems and logistics, like fatigue? Could four NIT teams play three games in six days? It only takes five days to do three games with two days’ rest between each, so six days would provide a little breathing room. The NIT likes to play its games locally to generate interest, causing more travel for each lower seed but less travel for the higher seeds. If necessary, though, the NIT could rethink its approach by just having four regional venues, with enhanced national television interest adding the sizzle. Consider also: Winning the current NIT already requires five games, and winning the NCAA requires six games. Even if the NIT qualifiers play two or three more contests, few schools, if any, would be fatigued any more than several schools are now.

    Call it the NIT Play-In Tournament. With the NIT now controlled by the NCAA anyway, the stage is duly set to enhance the NCAA reach, anoint great meaning and relevance to the NIT, and simultaneously expand the greatest sports commodity that money and ingenuity can buy: hope.

    There is a growing likelihood that the NCAA will expand as soon as 2011. Unless it wants to conduct a diminished NIT for teams with losing records, the NIT may disappear altogether as a new stalk of NCAA games takes shape. The conclusion remains: A play-in tournament is a better approach than traditional bottom-up expansion with up to 32 more meaningless games. Suddenly there will be more hope, more fairness, and dozens of additional games worth watching — all good for television, fans, ratings and March revenue. And that adds up to March Magic.

    Eldon L. Ham is an adjunct professor of sports, law and society at Chicago-Kent College of Law and has worked with or represented numerous agents and athletes.

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  • Sales tales right on target

    Bill King’s article on the ticket sales combine [March 15-21] was the best piece I have ever read in SBJ.

    Reading about the trials and tribulations of Bill and the other participants made me laugh to tears. We have all been there. And yes, we hate that survey guy, too.

    Jon Schmieder

    Schmieder is president of the Phoenix Regional Sports Commission.

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  • This Week's Cartoon

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