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Fifty years ago, no one talked about graduation rates. The NIT not the NCAA was considered the real national collegiate basketball championship tournament. There was no March Madness. There were very few African-American basketball players in college sports. Television rarely covered a college event.
Many of us look back nostalgically on some aspects of those "good old days."
As 129 men's and women's teams hit the court last week with a dream of being in St. Louis or Indianapolis for that glorious final weekend of basketball in April, so, too, talk of those teams' graduation rates heated up. Sometimes, that talk elevates the spirits of a team if it has done well academically. More often, it throws a cold, wet blanket on college sports, as we are forced to recognize that perhaps our schools aren't living up to their promise the promise that a student-athlete will have every opportunity to exit the halls of higher education with a degree and a meaningful education.
I direct the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. Last week, we released a study on the graduation rates of the NCAA Tournament teams. That study emphatically points out that college basketball does not do as well by its student-athletes as most other sports. A startling 45 Division I men's programs and 27 women's programs that recently finished up their regular seasons some of which are still playing in the tournaments have not graduated a single African-American student-athlete in the six-year period the study examined.
Graduation rates for women student-athletes, including African-American women, are much better than the rates for men. And white student-athletes in basketball generally did much better in this study than African-American student-athletes in basketball.
It should be pointed out that studies of graduation rates are flawed, and the manner in which graduation rates are currently compiled is unfair. Using the current methodology, a student-athlete who transfers in good standing and graduates from another institution counts as a non-graduate at the initial school. Also, the methodology does not count a junior-college student who transfers to a four-year college and graduates, or a former student-athlete who returns and graduates six years after his or her original enrollment.
I support the NCAA's current initiative to redefine how graduation rates are calculated. Nonetheless, at this point in time, the current graduation rates are our best measure of the success of our student-athletes.
Are low graduation rates a new problem? Are they simply overhyped because of the NCAA Tournament? The television? The money? The increasing number of African-American student-athletes?
What creates this ambiguous line between academics and athletics?
My dad is a Hall of Fame basketball player and coach. He coached for 30 years, including 20 years at St. John's (1936-45 and 1956-65) and 10 years with the New York Knicks (1945-56). He was my hero. I will always remember one day when he returned from St. John's early in the 1956 season. His pattern when he came home after practice was to go upstairs, change clothes, and then come back downstairs to read the Yonkers Herald Statesman and have a cup of coffee or perhaps an amber-colored drink over ice.
On this particular day, though, he did not come down. After about an hour, I became concerned that perhaps he was not feeling well, and went upstairs, to find him in tears. I had never seen any grown man in tears, let alone my father who'd been described by the sports media as a "man's man" and the "first great big man" in basketball when he played for the Original Celtics. Men were not supposed to cry.