Colleges Need to Improve Academic Success of Athletes, Studies Show
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JEFFREY BROWN: On the court, they have the skills. They dribble; they dunk; and they bring out the school spirit.
But off the court, there’s been a long history of academic underachievement in men’s NCAA basketball. The teams making up this year’s Final Four arrived in Atlanta, as the annual fever known as March Madness reaches its climax.
This weekend won’t be about test scores and passing grades, but a new study examining the graduation rates for participating schools released by the University of Central Florida presents some good and bad news.
It found that, of the 65 schools participating in this year’s tournament, just 24 institutions graduated at least 70 percent of players in recent years. Some schools in the NCAA tournament graduated less than one in five players, or 20 percent, including the University of Tennessee and the University of Maryland. Ohio State, a contender for the championship this year, has a 38 percent graduation rate.
But there are some schools that are excelling. The College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, the University of Florida — another of the remaining title contenders — and Weber State University all graduated 100 percent of their male basketball athletes.
The study also revealed that white athletes are graduating in much higher numbers than their black colleagues in NCAA schools.
In 2001, a study by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics recommended that, by this year, 2007, teams that did not graduate at least 50 percent of their players should not be eligible for championship play.
And for more on how athletes are doing off the court, I’m joined by Richard Lapchick, the lead author of the new study. And he’s director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.
And Kevin Blackistone, a freelance sportswriter who appears on ESPN, NPR and other outlets, he has reported widely on college athletics.
Well, Richard Lapchick, you’ve been watching this problem for years with some concern. Where do things stand now?
RICHARD LAPCHICK, Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports: Well, the good news is that, when the Knight Commission said 50 percent should be the measure to be eligible for the tournament, only 28 percent of the teams would have met that standard in 2001. This year, 64 percent of the teams graduated better than 50 percent of their basketball-playing student athletes.
There’s been a gradual increase in the graduation rates for basketball players in general. The bad news here is that nearly 49 percent of those teams in the tournament had a gap of 30 percent or more between the graduation rates of their African-American players and their white players.
JEFFREY BROWN: Kevin Blackistone, how do you see it, emphasize the glass half-full, half-empty, how do you see it?
KEVIN BLACKISTONE, Freelance Sportswriter: Well, I think it’s half-empty, and the reason is because it’s the mission of higher education to educate people, hopefully provide them with a certification of that education, which is a diploma, and hopefully a validation of what they’ve learned by being able to get employed once they leave.
And, obviously, what this shows is that there is a disconnect between college athletics and what that mission statement in higher education really is. And, as Richard pointed out, things have gotten better, probably because schools feel somewhat behooved now to do a better job in terms of graduating their student athletes, simply because there’s a lot more pressure being put on them to do so.
Colleges feeling the pressure
JEFFREY BROWN: Are they feeling that pressure, do you think, Richard Lapchick? Is that why you see a positive sign here of improvement?
RICHARD LAPCHICK: I think the passage of something called the academic progress rates, which if they fall below a certain standard, starting next year, in terms of their graduation rates, they'll start to lose scholarships.
I speak on college campuses pretty regularly, and people in the athletics department tell me all the time that now they've started to recruit athletes that they are confident will be able to graduate because the coaches do not want to lose those scholarships. Those scholarships are their bread and butter of how they stay in contention to get in the tournament and to get to this weekend in general.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see, Kevin, a change in the life of the student athlete, or is it really school by school? Is that how to think of it? Or is there a general rule?
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Well, it is school by school, but I think, if you look at the last generation of student athletes, I think you can see a change. They've become much more important to the lifeblood of a university beyond just building up school spirit.
Those scholarship athletes also are a great marketing tool for the universities. And, beyond that, most importantly, they're great revenue generators for those universities.
Athletic departments at major schools like those that we're going to see this weekend in the Final Four, those are basically separate corporations that have a...
JEFFREY BROWN: Separate corporations?
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Separate corporations. I mean, we're talking about places that control $50, $60, $70 million in revenue in their athletic budgets. They have to get that money from somewhere, and they're getting it from the revenue sports, which we know of as being basketball and football.
Bolting for the NBA
JEFFREY BROWN: And, yet, you see some discrepancy in Mr. Lapchick's data there between a Florida and an Ohio State.
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Exactly. But I would also point out -- and as Richard knows, down there in Florida, that's going to change dramatically for Florida pretty soon, because most of the players that they have on this year's team who returned from last year's national championship team are underclassmen, and most likely will bolt this year for the NBA.
And, therefore, it won't be until they actually finish their education and get a degree that they'll count in these statistics.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, Mr. Lapchick, that's a little confusing, isn't it? Some of the big stars that we often hear about leave school after a year or two years to, some of them hopefully -- I mean, they hope -- to go to the NBA. Are they counted in your statistics here?
RICHARD LAPCHICK: In previous years, when the Knight Commission released that statement in 2001, they would have counted against the school. As long as they leave in good academic standing now, they do not count against the school. They become a neutral factor.
And Kevin mentioned, you know, football and basketball being the drivers. I think it's a statement about the University of Florida that their national championship football team also had the highest graduation rate of all the 56 bowl-bound teams last year.
They're doing something right at Florida, and I think it would behoove the other schools, not only in the Final Four, but in the tournament who play Division I sports to find out what's going on in Florida, because it's across the board. They're producing clearly great athletic teams.
And if we had a final game on Monday night between the two with the best graduation rate, it would be Georgetown and the University of Florida.
Better picture on the women's side
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Lapchick, staying with you, what about the women's side here? It sounds like it's a better picture.
RICHARD LAPCHICK: The women have consistently had higher graduation rates. We're 10 to 20 percent higher across the board in the women's teams than we are in the men's teams.
There are lots of women -- more than 80 percent of the women's teams have a graduation rate above 70 percent. And equally important to me is the gap between African-American females and white females on those teams is very narrow. They've eliminated that gap.
And I think that's an important statement about how they play the women's game, and it's also about them not having the same driving force at the end that they think they're going to play in the pros, and know that they're going to have to be better prepared academically for a career outside of the game of basketball.
JEFFREY BROWN: You wanted to jump in there?
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Yes, I was going to say that's the biggest difference. The WNBA, obviously, does not provide the same riches that the NBA does. And so women, unfortunately, don't have as many professional athletic opportunities as men do and I also don't think have grown up with this dream that they can hit the lottery ticket of being a professional athlete.
Gap between black, white athletes
JEFFREY BROWN: The big gap that he does cite, Mr. Lapchick cites, on the men's side, is between black and white athletes.
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Yes, and that may be part of what I just mentioned. You know, unfortunately, still today, when young black males look for images to emulate, what do they see? They see Michael Jordan. They see Magic Johnson. They see all these fabulous athletes who get featured on MTV "Cribs" and all of the wonderful things they can do with the millions of dollars that they make.
They don't necessarily think about a Condoleezza Rice or a Colin Powell or someone who's a lawyer or a doctor. And, therefore, they get caught up in this chase for the athletic dream, and sometimes that turns out to be a tragedy.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Lapchick, we just have a minute here, but I wanted to ask you, for those schools that continue to do poorly, how much of an oversight regime is there? Is there anybody really pushing them with some, you know, real hard sanctions?
RICHARD LAPCHICK: Well, this is going to be the first time, starting next year, that the NCAA will be able to penalize them with a loss of scholarships. You know, we've gone for 50 or 60 years with poor graduation rates that have really very recently, under Myles Brand leadership, started to change.
And I think the fact that they are able to put in those sanctions is the primary difference-maker. But I want to point out that, on many of our college campuses, those basketball student-athletes who are African-Americans graduated at a higher rate than African-American students in general.
Too many of our campuses are still unwelcoming places for people of color when they come. The streets and the buildings were all named after people who look like me. The faculty mostly look like me, the administrators. That has to change, too. We have to have a more friendly and welcoming climate on our college campuses for all students of color.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Thank you both very much, Richard Lapchick and Kevin Blackistone, thanks.