Graduation rates for all Division I women's basketball players declined for the second straight year, a trend that NCAA President Cedric Dempsey called "distressing." The declines reported in the 1999 NCAA Graduation Rates Report released today were sharpest among black basketball players, both male and female, as other rates generally remained constant.

One-year drops of four percentage points for all female basketball players and six points for black female players left those graduation rates equal to and two points lower than those for any class entering college since the NCAA implemented tougher standards in the fall of 1986. The rate for white female basketball players was down two percentage points this year. Nevertheless, female basketball players continue to graduate at a higher rate than all female students do.

The latest report, compiled from data the NCAA is required to file annually with the Department of Education, measured the graduation rates among athletes on athletic scholarships who entered school as freshmen in the fall of 1992, allowing them six years to earn a degree. Athletes who transferred in good academic standing were not counted as a graduate of any school, even if they completed their degree work.

In two years, the graduation rate of all female Division I basketball players dropped from an all-time high of 67 percent to 62 percent. That equals the lowest rate since 1986, the year standards were toughened by Proposition 48, which set academic standards incoming high school athletes had to meet in order to receive an athletic scholarship as a freshman. The graduation rate for black female players has dropped for three straight years, including nine percentage points in two years, from 58 percent to 49 percent.

Among men's basketball players, the graduation rate of 33 percent for black males in the latest report equaled the rate for the entering class of 1985. The rate for all male basketball players remained at 41 percent for the second straight year. It was two points lower than the 1985 rate and 13 percentage points lower than the graduation rate for all male students entering Division I schools in 1992. The gap is the same as in 1984, when the NCAA began keeping these records.

"We don't know what the causes for the decline are, but it's certainly an area that needs to be monitored," Dempsey said in a statement.

Dempsey could not be reached the past two days for additional comment but his spokesman, Wally Renfro, said, "[The rates] should stay the same all things being equal. We don't have any empirical data that tells us why these rates are the way they are. . . . I think it's encouraging to say all the [other] numbers are better than they were before we had Prop 48."

"Those are sort of eye-popping numbers, aren't they?" said Jim Haney, executive director of the men's National Association of Basketball Coaches. "It's very noticeable because [the basketball graduation rates] are not headed in the direction the NCAA suggested when the standards were changed."

"I'm really stunned at the female rate dropping," said Betty Jaynes, chief executive officer of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "We've prided ourselves in the fact we have such good graduation rates. . . . The thing that stands out the most [was that] we're in our third year of decline [for black female players]. We will have to look at this, monitor this and get to the bottom of this. I want to be a part of the solution, not the problem. We've got to stop it."

The men's basketball tournament currently brings the NCAA $1.73 billion from CBS Sports over seven years in rights fees and a new deal likely worth more than $3 billion is being negotiated. The women's college game has grown in popularity in recent years, and players now have the lure of the WNBA, which is completing its third season, to spend more time honing their game instead of hitting the books and the labs.

"With Title IX [compliance] on the horizon, I think there are a lot of changes coming in women's basketball," said Rudy Washington, commissioner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and former executive director of the Black Coaches Association. "It's the only women's sport I know that [has the potential] to make money."

CAPTION: 1999 NCAA Division I Graduation Rate Report (This chart was not available)