The Blind Side of March Madness

This piece originally appeared online at ESPN.com on March 25, 2010.

It is time to boost graduation rates for a number of NCAA tournament basketball teams with poor academic records and indefensible disparities in the grad rates of white and black players.

In 2001, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics proposed that teams should be ineligible for postseason play if they failed to graduate at least 50 percent of their student-athletes. Now, nearly a decade later, I am proposing that the NCAA adopt an even easier standard for postseason competition—teams that graduate fewer than 40 percent of their players should be ineligible for postseason competition and honors.

If a team fails to graduate two out of five players, how serious are the institution and coach about their players’ academic success and preparing their student-athletes for life? Growing up as a kid on the South Side of Chicago who loved basketball, I got to see the best that college sports had to offer. And the worst.

When college sports programs have their priorities in order, there is no better place to learn invaluable lessons than on the playing field or court. College sports—along with the military—are arguably among the most important and largest developers of future leaders in the country. Discipline, selflessness, resilience, passion, courage—all were evident in last week’s NCAA tournament games.

But I fail to see why a small number of programs that seem largely indifferent to the academic success of their student-athletes continue to be rewarded with opportunities for postseason glory. I played with inner-city players who had been used and dumped by their universities. When the ball stopped bouncing, they struggled to find work, had difficult lives, and some died early. The dividing line for success was between those who went to college and got their degrees and those who did not.

In this year’s NCAA tournament, 12 men’s teams—or about one out of five in the field that started play last week—have failed to graduate 40 percent of their players, based on the NCAA’s expansive graduation rate formula. The NCAA formula allows players six years to graduate—and it does not count transfers or players who leave early to go to the pros against a team’s graduation record, as long as the players leave in good academic standing.

The fact is that graduation rates of black ballplayers on some men’s teams are shockingly low. Five men’s teams in the tournament graduated 20 percent or less of their black players. Two teams—Maryland and Cal-Berkeley—have graduated zero percent of their black ballplayers who entered from 1999 through 2002.

It can be a challenge to raise graduation rates for players who come from high-poverty high schools and families where no one has attended college. But that’s not an adequate excuse. You can’t just round up the usual suspects to explain away the poor record of some programs.

It is a myth that Division I college basketball players necessarily have high dropout rates. In fact, graduation rates of Division I basketball players have jumped significantly in recent years, and basketball players, including African-American players, still have a slight edge over nonathletes when it comes to finishing college. The majority of schools are running clean programs with high standards. But with so many examples of success, why tolerate the small number of schools and coaches who fail to set high expectations?

The truth is that teams don’t need to lower academic standards to field an NCAA tournament-caliber team—just look at the record of the women players. Black and white female basketball players have sky-high graduation rates. Nearly 80 percent of black female players on NCAA tournament teams graduate, as do 90 percent of white female ballplayers.

Pat Summitt, the coach of the Tennessee women’s basketball team, has won more games than any coach in Division I history and has graduated 100 percent of both her black and her white ballplayers in recent years. By contrast, the Tennessee men’s basketball team has a mediocre academic record.

Even more telling are the unwarranted disparities from one men’s program to the next. Seven men’s teams in this year’s tournament graduated 100 percent of their players, black and white. At the other end of the spectrum, nine teams have a discrepancy of 60 percentage points or more in graduation rates between their white and black players.

Discrepancies that large have to have a connection to a program’s practices and an institution’s priorities. In this year’s Sweet 16, Butler, Duke, Xavier and Cornell all graduate more than 80 percent of their men’s players. At the same time, four teams—Tennessee, Kentucky, Washington and Baylor—graduated less than 40 percent of their players who entered from 1999 through 2002.

Division I teams today need more athletic administrators like Sister Rose Ann Fleming at Xavier. Sister Fleming, a 77-year-old academic adviser, goes knocking on players’ doors to make sure they are keeping up with their assignments. Since she became the academic adviser at Xavier in 1985, every men’s basketball player who played as a senior has left with a diploma.

Several coaches and NCAA representatives have objected to the idea of banning teams with graduation rates below 40 percent from postseason play on the grounds that it punishes current players for the academic sins of their predecessors. The NCAA formula for computing graduation rates, known as the GSR, is a generous one, favored by coaches themselves. The GSR allows student-athletes six years to graduate and is, by definition, a retrospective measure that does not capture whether current players are on track to graduate.

If there is a fairer but equally transparent way to measure whether teams are on track to graduate at least 40 percent of their players, I am in favor of it. As it turns out, the NCAA itself may have developed another useful yardstick.

The NCAA made great strides under the leadership of Myles Brand before his death this past fall in tracking the academic progress of teams and meting out sanctions to schools with poor academic records. Before the 2003 introduction of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate index (APR), Division I basketball teams could go scot-free for years on end without graduating a single player.

Today, the APR provides contemporary, real-time data on the academic performance of student-athletes, and it is being used to impose penalties such as the loss of athletic scholarships. Three Division I teams—including a men’s basketball team not in the NCAA tournament (Centenary)—could potentially be banned from postseason play for their poor academic record.

APR penalties are a start. But I believe the current APR system sets the bar too low to qualify for postseason play. An APR score of 900 (a perfect APR score is 1,000) is roughly equivalent to a 40 percent graduation rate, according to the NCAA.

Just under 4 percent of the 6,323 teams at the nation’s 355 Division I institutions have APR scores below 900. By far, the sport with the worst academic record is men’s basketball. Fifty-six men’s basketball teams have APR scores below 900, or roughly one out of every six Division I men’s basketball teams. Teams in other sports with sub-900 APR scores include 26 baseball teams and 21 football teams.

Indiana’s men’s basketball team, whose academic performance has gone downhill since Bobby Knight last coached the Hoosiers, is one of the teams with an APR below 900. More than 80 percent of Coach Knight’s last four classes of players graduated. A low APR score is especially telling because it is not a one-year fluke—APR scores are based on a rolling average of the academic progress of four years of classes.

If using the more current APR data is a fairer way to determine which teams are failing to graduate 40 percent of their players, the NCAA should consider banning teams with APRs below 900 from postseason play. Teams with poor academic records should not be allowed to rack up three years of consecutive sub-900 APR scores before they run the risk of becoming ineligible for postseason play, as current NCAA rules specify.

If the NCAA implements the equivalent of a minimum graduation rate of 40 percent for postseason eligibility, I am confident that men’s basketball teams will quickly improve their academic performance. It’s a low bar—and one that should soon be raised to 50 percent.

History shows that institutions, coaches and athletes rise to meet higher expectations—just as they did in the late 1980s when the NCAA’s Proposition 48 required student-athletes to achieve a minimum high school grade point average in core academic courses and a prescribed minimum SAT or ACT score. It is time to start holding coaches and institutions more accountable for the academic outcomes of their athletes. It is time that coaches of teams with weak academic records worry less about getting athletes in a uniform and more about getting them in a cap and gown.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. secretary of education.