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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