The blame game for graduation rates

Updated: March 15, 2006, 2:51 PM ET
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

When a team wins a national championship, one of the fringe benefits is the traditional visit to the White House and a meeting with the president of the United States. It's an amazing feeling, being in the Oval Office with the president. In my role with National Student-Athlete Day, I experienced it on a number of occasions during the Clinton administration, including several times when national championship teams were being celebrated. National Student Athlete-Day on April 6 honors all that is right about sport in America, recognizing people who contribute to the effort to keep the "student" in student-athlete; and I am proud to have been involved in the special day's creation.

This year, however, as the day approaches and the NCAA prepares to tip off the tournaments that will decide the next national collegiate basketball champions, I am forced to reflect on the persistence of the incredible disparity between the graduation rates of black and white student-athletes for the teams in the men's and women's tournaments, which we found again in the recently published study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. (Here is the complete study for the men's tournament teams.)

First, though, I should note that there is a lot of good news in this year's report. The Graduation Success Rate is a much better yardstick of how our student-athletes are doing academically -- and gives us access to a better measurement of the percentage of student-athletes who have graduated -- than the Federal Graduation Rates, which were used previously. The GSR, for example, doesn't penalize schools when an athlete transfers out in good academic standing. Many of the GSR numbers are impressive:

• 71 percent of the women's tournament teams and 36 percent of the men's teams graduated at least 70 percent of their student-athletes.

• 95 percent of the women's teams graduated at least half of their basketball student-athletes, as did 64 percent of the men's teams.

• Only one women's team (Southern University) graduated less than 40 percent of its student-athletes; 25 percent of the men's teams were below that mark, though.

However, the cavernous disparity between the GSR for white and black student-athletes remains a very big problem:

• The GSR data show 25 men's tournament teams that have a gap of at least 30 percentage points between the graduation rates of white and black student-athletes in basketball.

• Looking at all 327 Division I men's teams, the disparity in GSR between whites and blacks is equally troubling, as there are 123 teams with at least a 30 percent difference.

In spite of the continuing improvement, I can't help but look for reasons and people and institutions to blame for this persistent disparity.

Is it the NCAA? For years, I would have said the NCAA had failed to take action against colleges and universities that didn't graduate their student-athletes. A school literally could go for decades without graduating a student-athlete and the NCAA wasn't able to impose sanctions against it.

Myles Brand, now the NCAA president, has put forth an academic reform package that includes a measure of success called Academic Progress Rates, but those rates are so new they have yet to be fully implemented. Some schools will be penalized this year, but the NCAA is still making various APR adjustments that won't be taken into account for another year or two. Then it will be ready to penalize the schools that still fail to meet agreed-to academic performance standards. Every school that falls below the standard is to be penalized for its failure to deliver on the promise it makes to its students-athletes when they enter the university: that they will graduate. That is an ethical contract between the college and the student-athlete.

It is my hope that, at some point, those schools also will be held accountable specifically for the academic success of their black student-athletes. If they graduate 80 percent of their white basketball players but only 45 percent of black basketball players, the NCAA should take away scholarships. Accountability is critical.

Should some of the blame for the disparity between graduation rates be directed at coaches who recruit students-athletes solely to win games? I have no doubt that some coaches work closely with the school's admissions office to admit student-athletes who have little or no chance at academic success. In some cases, coaches might believe a player will leave after one or two years to turn pro anyway, so the coach will not have to be accountable. This is thinking without an ethical foundation. If a student is brought to a school, he or she has to be ready and must have the appropriate support to succeed.

Are admissions officers at fault when they accept students who cannot succeed academically on their campuses? Some are fans of the game. Some, no doubt, feel the pressure from an unethical coach. Either way, the student-athlete loses.

And what about the fans and alumni who care more about winning than about the academic performance of the student-athletes on their favorite teams? They reinforce a coach who feels the heat to win. They make it easier for an admissions officer to admit a gifted athlete who can't compete in the classroom. They distort the value system for the student-athletes who ultimately win or lose the games.

And how much blame should be placed on the student-athletes themselves? They are partners in the contract with their institutions. Surely, they bear some responsibility for their own behavior academically.

But who is providing them with the road map to what is right? On many campuses, the climate sometimes isn't welcoming to students of color who might be underrepresented in the student body, among faculty and administration, and in the athletic department. Maybe there is a Martin Luther King Boulevard or a Malcolm X Center somewhere on or near campus, but it's a safe bet most of the buildings and streets are named after white people.

Should the general public be held responsible? At least, the part of the general public that assumes black student-athletes simply aren't as capable in the classroom as white student-athletes? Every time I publish graduation rates, I routinely get e-mails, letters and phone calls from fans who represent that sort of thinking -- the sort of thinking I can only describe as racist.

I ask myself all those questions, about all those cogs in the college sports machine. But I don't think, in the end, that any of them should bear the biggest part of the responsibility. Ultimately, I think the blame rests on our politicians and government officials. On city managers, mayors, school boards, governors and, yes, even the presidents of the United States who welcome our championship teams to the White House. Too many of them have failed in the urban areas that produce so many of our black basketball players. Too many of them haven't delivered the resources that would level the academic playing field. Too many of them talk the talk but rarely walk the walk to make it possible for student-athletes -- and students in general -- to be successful.

They cheer our teams at the local level, but they fail to act when it comes to equipping -- or, in some cases, creating -- the computer labs, or purchasing the library resources, or keeping the best teachers in our cities. To them, other things seem to be more important, whether it's creating tax breaks for the wealthy or pouring unending resources into military efforts overseas in wars that seem endless and take away the dollars that could be better spent on improving the quality of lives in our cities.

Those are the people who distress me more than anyone else.

These factors must change. Public pressure must come to bear to make education a priority in every American community. That will help our colleges more than any academic reform can. That will narrow the enormous academic success gap between the black basketball players we will be cheering in the upcoming weeks and their white counterparts.

They need to be classmates as well as teammates.

Richard Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity and ethics in sport.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com