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Duncan Wants NCAA to Stress Academics with Athletics

March 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As basketball fans hail the arrival of the March Madness tournament season, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he wants the NCAA to exclude teams from post-season play unless 40 percent of their players finish degrees. Judy Woodruff reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: College basketball’s big tournament is under way, with thrills on the court. But what about the classroom?

Judy Woodruff has the story.

ANNOUNCER: The Florida defense is going to have play very well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: March madness, a modern rite of spring, began in earnest today. And Americans from the president on down had their brackets ready.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And what I think may end up being the best game of the tournament, Kentucky-West Virginia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament got rolling with 65 teams. Eventually, two will play for the national championship on April 5.

But, this year, there are new questions about another measure of success: college graduation rates. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, himself a onetime college player, wants to ban teams from postseason play unless at least 40 percent of their players finish degrees.

By that standard, a dozen schools in this year’s tournament would be ineligible. That’s according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. It tracked freshmen who entered school between 1999 and 2002, and how many graduated within six years.

The list includes Kentucky, a number-one seed this year and winner of seven national titles, with a graduation rate of 31 percent, and the University of Maryland, with a rate of just 8 percent, lowest in the tournament field. The school disputed that finding.

The study also found white players have a much higher graduation rate than do black players. On a teleconference call yesterday, Secretary Duncan said, “If a university can’t have two out of five of their student athletes graduate, I don’t know why they’re rewarded with postseason play.”

The statement, on the eve of the big dance, didn’t play well with coaches. Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl, whose team would be ineligible under Duncan’s standard, suggested the problem lies at the secondary education level. Pearl said: “I don’t want to deny the opportunity to students that aren’t prepared. I’m going to fight for the student athletes that come in and aren’t as prepared.”

And while Secretary Duncan’s proposal has made headlines, he can do little more. The federal government has no power to mandate graduation rates for postseason eligibility. That decision is up to the NCAA, which is run by the schools themselves.