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March Madness Fervor Hides Low Graduation Rates

March 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As the annual college basketball tournament known as March Madness begins, there is a proposal to block men's college basketball teams that don't graduate at least 40 percent of their players. Judy Woodruff talks to a sports journalism professor for more on athletics and academics.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For a closer look at what’s behind some of these graduation rates and what’s being considered, we turn to Kevin Blackistone, a professor of sports journalism at the University of Maryland. He is a regular commentator on ESPN and a sports columnist for AOL FanHouse.

Kevin Blackistone, thank you for being with us.

First of all, to clarify, we’re just talking about basketball programs, and we’re just talking about men’s sports; is that right?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE, University of Maryland: Well, that’s pretty much argument, the debate that comes up every time this year. When the tournament starts, they bring out the numbers about the graduation rates of the teams and schools that are involved. And it always looks pretty dismal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, again, it’s just basketball, and just the men.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: It is just basketball. It is just men’s. It happens during football season when the bowl season starts up just the same.

And I think the — the reason women are generally excluded from this conversation is because they generally don’t run into this very problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in this particular study, 12 out of the 65 schools in the current tournament wouldn’t be eligible. How widespread is this problem?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Well, it is — I mean, it’s a — it’s a big problem.

And I should point out that, actually, the numbers are slightly better than year than they were last year at the same time. It’s a big enough problem that the late Myles Brand, when he was running the NCAA for several years early in this — this millennium, he set out to try and get people to change this culture of producing athletes for the pros, but not producing people who are qualified to graduate from all these universities whose banners that we see this time of year.

And he actually put in place a program to try and grade the graduation rates on some even level and try to hold schools or threaten to hold schools to be accountable for it. But that hammer has really not fallen with — with much thunder yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, their efforts have been out there. When did all this become a problem, or has it always been like this?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Well, I think it’s become a problem ever since this became a moneymaking business. I really don’t think that college athletics at this level have much to do with a college education anymore.

I think when you hear the student athlete phrase bandied about, I think it’s more window dressing than anything else. The basketball tournament that is being shown on CBS right now is being shown under a $6 billion contract, which soon may be torn up and — and sold to the highest bidder, which this time may be ESPN. And they may double the rate for — for what’s being purchased.

So, I just don’t know that the mission of college education and the mission of college athletics are on the same page, let alone in the same book. And money is what is driving everything right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, take us inside these schools. Why has it become the problem that it is, Kevin Blackistone, and including at the school where you teach, the University of Maryland?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Yes, I have been teaching at Maryland now for two years. And, you know, one of the things that colleges are up against right now all across the country — we see what’s going on in the California school system right now — is money from — from the state. It’s drying up. It’s been drying up for years.

And, all of a sudden, people who run universities across the country are having to look for another stream of revenue. And one of those streams of revenue is coming from their athletic departments. You look at a school like Ohio State or a school like Texas, where they have had athletic budgets over $100 million for a few years now, they basically operate their athletic departments as separate entities.

And those entities at the end of the year generally cut a check back to the university, a check that the university is seeing less and less from the state coffers that are supposed to support them. So, this is a very perverted and convoluted problem that always seems to rear its head during the NCAA Tournament and during the bowl season in football.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when — and the people who have looked at this say what’s particularly troubling is the racial disparity here, that…

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … that there’s a much higher graduation rate among white athletes than among black athletes.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Right. And, unfortunately, that gap seems to have widened a little bit this year, and that’s what’s troubling to a lot of people.

Now, on one hand, you know, we have a situation where this is one of these dreams that so many kids have, particularly black kids, be they in urban America or out in the suburbs or in rural America. They all want to be the next Michael Jordan, the next Magic Johnson, the next LeBron James. We have all heard those stories.

And, unfortunately, they follow those dreams, and those dreams are fed by college recruiters who whisper sweet nothings in their ear, get them into college, make them do anything and everything they can to make the basketball team better, and sometimes, oftentimes, don’t look out for their welfare when it comes to the classroom.

And that is really what needs to end. I’m not so concerned about the kids who go on to fabulous professional careers, whether they stay in school one year or two years or do their entire four-year matriculation. But I’m more concerned about the kids who go there, don’t realize that dream, and then don’t have the education to fall back on, which is supposedly the reason you went to college anyway.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a nutshell, what can be done about this? We heard, of course, the secretary of education, the government doesn’t have the power to affect this.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Right. And I totally disagree with Arne Duncan on that. I think government does have power to effect change here.

You know, there’s — there’s hardly a university in the country, be it public or private, that doesn’t take some federal money. And just to say that you would kick out some schools — kick some schools out of the tournament who don’t meet whatever standards you meet for a graduation rate, I think, is pretty shortsighted.

If government really wants to get involved in this, you know, they can start to threaten schools with losing their federal funding if, in fact, they’re not living up to whatever standard they’re going to set. So, I disagree with Arne Duncan on that. I think they can do a lot more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you think that’s likely to happen?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: I don’t think that’s likely to happen, but at least he’s raised the conversation within the Cabinet, and maybe some people can start talking about it in a serious light.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kevin Blackistone, we thank you for talking with us.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you.