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Building a Better Front Porch for Higher Education

Excerpts of Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks to the NCAA


Thank you. Please stand to pay a special tribute to the wife and son of Myles Brand, who are here today. Myles Brand was a remarkable leader who was unafraid of controversy. He had integrity and courage and a real understanding of the True North--he was committed to integrating higher education and intercollegiate athletics, and he had an absolute belief in the transformative power of intercollegiate athletics. The NCAA made tremendous progress under his leadership in improving academic outcomes for student athletes, expanding opportunity for minority coaches to serve as head coaches, and the inclusion of women athletes in Title IX.

The chance to speak here today means so much to me personally because the NCAA has meant so much to me and my family. My father, who died 2 1/2 years ago, was a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and was also the faculty representative to the NCAA for more than a quarter century. I well remember him coming home from NCAA conventions, excited about the discussions and recounting the debates that took place there. He was deeply interested in athletics--but he was even more committed to enriching the quality of the student experience, whether through sports or the university folk music festival.

He instilled in me the understanding that the mission of a university was a dual mission: To educate its students and prepare them for life. If a college fails to educate all of its students--if it fails to give them a chance to learn and grow--then that university has failed its mission. It is that simple.

You may not know that my sister was a much better basketball player than me. She also played at Harvard and went on to play professionally in Europe. She was an early beneficiary of Title IX, which ended the practice of depriving half of the student body of the opportunity to play intercollegiate sports. My sister had doors open to her that were never available to my mother—who was probably the best athlete of all in our family.

My mother ran an after-school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago, which I went to every day as a child. I had something of a unique upbringing. After we were done studying, tutoring, and chores, we played basketball. Growing up, I got to see the best that college sports had to offer--and the worst.

I played against Rhodes Scholars who went to the University of Chicago. And I played with inner-city players, who had been used and dumped by their universities.

In the end they had nothing to show for the wins, the championships, and the revenues they had brought to their schools. When the ball stopped bouncing, they had very few opportunities in life. They struggled to find work, had difficult lives, and died early.

The dividing line for success was between those who went to college and got their degrees, and those who did not.

I am eternally grateful and thankful every day to my college coaches, Peter Roby and Frank McLaughlin, and my AD, Jack Reardon, for the opportunities they gave me. The fact is that student athletes often spend more time with their coaches than they do with any professor during their college years. And great coaches, just like great teachers, transform the lives of their students.

I was lucky enough to play in college and then professionally, and my teammates are still some of my best friends. One of my coaches, Tom Thibodeau, is now an assistant coach for the Celtics. To get coaches in Australia to look at me when I came out of college, Tom told them that I was "like Larry Bird--but better with the ball." Every time I made a mistake, my coach in Australia repeated that line.

Why are sports so important to me? I still love to compete, the camaraderie, and the national tournaments. I love to compete and I love to win.

But that is not why I'm so passionate about this subject. It is because I'm convinced that, when priorities are in order, there is no better way to teach invaluable life lessons than on the playing field or court. I go back to the dual mission articulated by my dad-- that a university is there to educate its students and prepare them for life.

Bill Bradley, a hero of mine, beautifully captures the lessons of sports in his book Values of the Game. He shows how sports transmit values and lessons that are difficult to acquire in a chemistry or biology lab. He cites:

  • Passion—finding what you love and sticking to it.
  • Discipline
  • Selflessness/teamwork—how helping someone else can help you as well.
  • Respect
  • Courage
  • Leadership—There is no better way to give students a chance to fulfill their leadership potential. The lessons I try and live by every day come out of the culture of intercollegiate athletics.
  • Responsibility—no excuses.
  • Resilience—handling defeat.
  • Imagination

So, if in intercollegiate sports, we have this resource of unparalleled beauty, of extraordinary power to help young men and women grow and fulfill their true potential, why do we allow it to be tainted?

Why do we allow the NCAA, why do we allow universities, why do we allow college sports to be tainted when the vast majority of coaches and athletic directors are striving to instill the right values? Why do we allow our reputations, our universities, and the NCAA as a whole to be stained by the actions of a few? How do we get rid of that tiny minority? It's as if you collectively created a living, breathing, evolving masterpiece, yet the NCAA continues, unfortunately, to be very publicly defamed by renegade coaches or institutions who don't respect you, who don't respect your values, and in their heart have no true concern for the student-athletes they are supposed to lead.

The NCAA today is not only a vast enterprise but one of vital consequence to higher education. More than 410,000 student athletes participate in NCAA championship sports, including more than 161,000 student athletes in Division One alone.

Myles Brand left a rich legacy to celebrate. Yet the full promise of college athletics has yet to be fulfilled. Too many student athletes, particularly on Division One men's basketball and big-time football teams, still are not receiving the education they need and deserve.

So, how do we protect the game, how do we protect what is invaluable in college sports? I would offer three ideas.

First, slow down. The pace of recruiting and spending has gotten out of control. We have universities recruiting eighth graders to college now. That is crazy. These players haven't even been to high school yet—how can they make an informed choice? College offers should only be extended after a player's sophomore year of high school, when NCAA rules allow coaches to initiate contact with recruits.

The one-and-done rule in college basketball is intellectually dishonest--those kids are in school for three months. They are taking six [credit] hours of classes. They are not taking anything in the way of real college work. They are not really student athletes—they are passing through, divorced from the life of the campus.

I know the NCAA doesn't control any of this, and I understand that the one-and-done rule comes from the NBA and the players union. But let's move toward adopting a system more like major league baseball for basketball-- where you can be drafted straight out of high school, but if you go to college, you can't get drafted again until after you have several years of college under your belt.

Let high school stars be eligible for the NBA draft. I don't see any justification for keeping the Kobe Bryant's and Kevin Garnett's from jumping straight to the pros out of high school but only a tiny handful of high school ball players are really ready to make that leap. For the vast majority of players who aren't ready, and decide to go to college, let them go to school for a full year. Let them take real classes. Let them maintain a GPA. Let them get a sense of the college community. I think they'll grow and I think they'll mature, and I think they'll have an opportunity after the second or third year of college to take that next step.

Second, we have to do more to value graduation as critically important. Part of a coach's job is not just to get their players in a uniform but in a cap-and-gown. President Obama has set a goal that, by 2020, America will once again have the highest college graduation rate in the world. A college degree is becoming more and more necessary to compete in the global economy.

In the NCAA tournament last year, roughly a quarter of the 64 teams--almost 25 percent—graduated less than 40 percent of their players. When I was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I barred a college coach from recruiting players in the city because his program had a zero percent graduation rate for four years. And I would encourage the superintendents in other school systems to do the same.

Now, four of the NCAA tournament teams last year graduated zero percent of their African-American players. By contrast, Wake Forest, Florida State, Robert Morris, Utah State, and Western Kentucky all graduated 100 percent of their players, black and white. White, black—it didn't matter, they all graduated. Those are huge disparities in outcomes—zero percent graduate versus 100 percent. Even after you level the playing field, and look just at teams that made it the NCAA tournament, teams have dramatically different outcomes when it comes to finishing school.

I know it can be a challenge to raise graduation rates for players who come from disadvantaged neighborhoods and families where no one has attended college. But think of Eddie Robinson, the legendary football coach at Grambling State, who coached Grambling's football team for 56 years. When Eddie Robinson retired from Grambling, he had won more football games than any college coach in history. But, more importantly, 80 percent of Eddie Robinson's football players graduated—and Robinson made sure they did, walking through the dorm banging a cowbell before dawn to get his players up and out to class.

I would propose—and this is frankly a low bar—that teams with less than 40 percent graduation rates be prohibited from post-season competition. If you can't graduate two out of five of your players, how serious are you about your players' academic success? How are you preparing them for life?

Finally, it is time to empower coaches but hold them to a higher standard of accountability. I would propose a grand bargain: When a program has good academic outcomes and is a clean program, we should increase the amount of contact allowed between coaches and their players in the off-season. You don't tell the star violinist that she can only practice with the orchestra and teacher five months a year or cap the summer lab time of a budding scientist.

But where programs are living the wrong values, coaches would be held personally responsible for their lack of leadership. Let me give you a few examples.

Where programs are out of control, where the average arrests per year are higher than a team's GPA, that's a challenge. One football program had 30 arrests over four years; a division rival had criminal charges leveled against 24 players during the same time, including nine felony charges.

When it can be proven that a head coach or assistant coach is intentionally or flagrantly in violation of NCAA rules, today one thing generally happens: The institution is sanctioned, forfeiting scholarships or perhaps forgoing the post-season. Current and future players are penalized, but not the bad actors.

I would propose two additional consequences for such behavior. First, the coach himself or herself should be personally sanctioned and face suspension--or bar him from coaching for a year or two or a lifetime, depending on the seriousness of the infraction. What we see far too often is coaches will run a program into the ground, get it in trouble, but bounce to the next institution, leaving chaos and disarray in their wake. That is troubling, it's disturbing. It's disturbing when you see folks run a program into the ground and somehow get a pay raise when they jump to the next place. If a coach changes jobs, any penalties should follow him.

Second, players on the original team, assuming they are in not implicated in any infractions, should have the right to transfer and immediately compete, escaping the toxic environment that a coach left behind.

Collectively, along with the military, college sports are arguably the important and largest developer of young men and women's character in the nation. You are literally creating our nation's future leaders.

I want to thank you for what created for me, my sister, and millions of student athletes. And I hope you will continue to cherish the opportunity you have to shape lives, and protect this sacred obligation with everything you have.

Thank you.