Ten years ago, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics proposed that teams should be ineligible for postseason play if they failed to graduate at least half of their players. Today, more than 90 percent of intercollegiate athletic teams meet that minimal academic benchmark, with one notable exception: men’s basketball.
As March Madness gets underway this week, 10 of the 68 men’s teams in the NCAA tournament are not on track to graduate half of their players. Colleges and universities need to stop trotting out tired excuses for basketball teams with poor academic records and indefensible disparities in the graduation rates of white and black players. And it is time that the NCAA revenue distribution plan stopped handsomely rewarding success on the court with multimillion-dollar payouts to schools that fail to meet minimum academic standards.
Like millions of fans, I’ll be watching the tournament, rooting for my favorites. As a kid on the South Side of Chicago who loved basketball, I got to see the best and the worst of college sports. I spent time on the court with inner-city players who had been used and dumped by their universities. When the ball stopped bouncing, they struggled to find work and had difficult lives. Some died early. The dividing line for success was between those who went to college and got their degrees, and those who did not. If a team fails to graduate even half of its players, how serious are the institution and coach about preparing their student-athletes for life?
The NCAA developed a measure known as the Academic Progress Rate index (APR) to track progress toward graduation with real-time data. According to the NCAA, an APR score of 925 (on a scale of 1,000) is equivalent to having 50 percent of a squad’s members on track to graduate. This year, the 10 men’s basketball teams with APRs below 925 include basketball powerhouses Syracuse and Kansas State. At Kansas State in recent years, 100 percent of white players graduated, but just 14 percent of black players did.
A new analysis, released today by the Knight Commission, shows the current tournament revenue formula is badly skewed to reward success on the court, with little expectation of success off the court. Each game a team plays in the tournament this year earns more than $1.4 million for the team’s conference.
Over the past five tournaments, the NCAA has awarded more than $400 million to conferences and their teams for tournament appearances. Nearly $179 million of that payout — 44 percent of the total — went to teams that were not on track to graduate at least half of their players. By contrast, tournament revenue provides comparatively little funding for educational uses or academic improvement.
When I raised the issue of low graduation rates among men’s teams last year, skeptical sportswriters said I didn’t understand the realities of big-time college basketball. But every year, the litany of excuses for why basketball teams cannot graduate most players and still have a championship team is less convincing.
In last year’s tournament, the two finalists, Duke and Butler, both had outstanding academic records. This year, eight teams in the tournament graduate 100 percent of both their black and white players: Belmont, Brigham Young, Illinois, Notre Dame, Utah State, Vanderbilt, Villanova and Wofford.
The top-ranked women’s basketball teams have even better records. Twenty-two women’s teams in this year’s NCAA tournament — one in three — graduate 100 percent of their black and white players. The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, which set the NCAA record for consecutive wins this season, graduates more than 90 percent of its players. Meanwhile, the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team has an APR of 930, a hair above a projected 50 percent graduation rate. Only 25 percent of its black players earn degrees.
The dramatic improvement in graduation rates among big-time football programs shows that a 50 percent graduation standard is not that difficult to meet and that teams will improve their academic performance to meet higher standards. Five years ago, 23 bowl teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision had APRs below 925. This year, one FBS bowl team had an APR below 925.
The NCAA has made considerable progress in recent years boosting the academic performance of Division I teams. But the bar for postseason play is still too low: In effect, teams must now be on track to graduate fewer than 40 percent of their players for six years running to potentially be ineligible for postseason play. Last year, out of more than 6,000 NCAA intercollegiate sports teams, one squad in men’s basketball was banned from postseason play because of a poor academic record.
A decade after the Knight Commission recommendation, coaches of teams with weak academic records should worry not just about getting athletes in a uniform — but also about getting them in a cap and gown.
The writer is secretary of education.