March Madness: Now THIS is Really a Scandal

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Coaches being fired due to, what, excessive dialing? Scandals at Harvard? Please. We’ve all gotten as soft the athletes we accuse of being too sensitive, too lazy or too “me.” The latest round of NCAA college basketball scandals – the kind that led to the firing/resignation of Kelvin Sampson at Indiana, and that are swirling about Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker – are milk toast on my scandal meter. Too many telephone calls? Running up on a recruit’s mom in a grocery store? as I said before, PLEASE!

Now listen. I hate cheating. I have two kids and the very last thing I want them to think is that Daddy condones cheating. But the NCAAs “cheating” standards have sunk to the level of damn-near-impossible to meet. Yes, Sampson, a good guy by most accounts, had used all his good-will chips. But Amaker is likely the victim of Ivy League-haters who cannot stand the fact that next season Harvard might actually compete for the league crown – and the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament (ca-ching) that goes with it. I’m not buying the cheating-at-Harvard headlines, at least not yet.

But I have to chuckle at the righteous indignation being passed about these days when the true scandal in college sports remains the pitiful graduation rates among programs that will be vying for berth in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

I’m talking true March madness.

Later this month, just after the announcement of the 65-team NCAA Tournament field, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, at the University of Central Florida, will release its annual study of graduation rates for teams that will vie for the national title. It will be called “Keeping Score When It Counts: Graduation Rates for 2008 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament Teams.”

Last year the news wasn’t all bad, at least relative to national averages. Forty-one teams (64.1) graduated at least half of its players, which was 17.2 percent higher than the national norm. (The year before, 35 of the 65 teams failed to meet that standard.) Also in 2007, one in three teams graduated at least 60 percent of their players and 24 teams graduated 70 percent. Twelve teams in the 2007 tournament fewer than 40 percent of their players.

That’s the good news. It gets a bit dicey when you break down the data to differentiate between the graduation rates for white players and black players. why do that? Just start watching the game. It’s been two decades since I noticed that at NCAA tournament games the majority of the players are black while the majority of fans (and, yes, media) are white.

In fact, more than 60 percent of the players in Division 1 men’s basketball are black. So the comparison says more about how seriously our institutions of higher learning are taking their mandate to educate our young men relative to their desire to win.

In 2007, 41 of the teams in the field (68.3 percent) graduated at least 70 percent of their white basketball players, while only 19 teams (30.2 percent) graduated 70 percent or more of their African-American players – a 38.1 percentage point gap.

Forty-nine (81.7 percent) of the tournament teams graduated 60 percent or more of their white basketball student-athletes, but only 29 teams (46 percent) graduated 60 percent or more of their African-American players – a 35.7 percentage point spread.

Finally, 57 schools (95 percent) graduated at least half of their white players, but only 34 schools (54 percent) graduated as many black players – a 41 percentage point difference.

Dr. Richard Lapchick, a long-time advocate for race and gender equality in sports and the author of the study sad last year: “We have to look at race as a continuing academic issue, reflected in the remaining huge gaps between graduation rates for white and African-American student-athletes. Men’s basketball has the worst record for graduation rates among all college sports.”

Overall, the 2007 study noted that only half percent of the black players graduate, compared with 76 percent of the white players. Lapchick called this disparity “startling.”

He noted that 2007 was “the first time that the disparity is greater for between white and African-American basketball student-athletes than for white and African-American students as a whole.”

When the NCAA committee sequesters itself next weekend to decide who deserves a coveted invitation, it will digest reams of data, including RPIs and wins versus quality opponents and all kinds of minutia. Unfortunately, one byte of data they won’t consider is graduation rates.

Frankly, I believe no team that graduates fewer than four in ten players should be allowed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Is that too old-school for you? Too naive, you say? Too bad. I’m still one of those guys who believes schools should be, well, schools first and not simply athletic factories.

Some of the responsibility for graduating is on the student-athletes, I know. As many young athletes – and yes particularly black athletes – are using their schools as much as their schools are using them. It’s a win-in for everyone. Or a lose-lose depending on your perspective.

Let’s be real: Forty percent isn’t a very high bar. But it’s something. Requiring a team to reach that standard – in any sport – isn’t asking too much. But maybe it’s asking enough for the schools to take it at least a bit more seriously than they are now.

Or at least as serious as they take trying to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Is that really so mad?

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2 thoughts on “March Madness: Now THIS is Really a Scandal

  1. I don’t know about all that. All I know is that both Stanford and Cal got JOBBED by the officials at Pauley. I’m still ticked, even though I want Ben Braun gone.

  2. Will says:

    Raising the graduation rate requirement to see more black ball players walk the stage is like paying your teenager to make a decent grade in algebra. It does not work. The problem, as you percieve, is not a group of crusty old white administrators sitting around a table plotting ways of only graduating white players. The real problem, which you alluded to, is that most black players would not even be there if they had no sports team. Graduating, and God forbid, learning something is so far from a priority its laughable. The real problem is much much deeper. Its the mentality….But what the hell, its so much easier to blame whitey.

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