Big Time College Sports: Winning at all Costs

When fans of intercollegiate basketball see the month of March approach, they know it’s time for the near-marathon round of March Madness when the best of the nation’s college basketball teams square off in a battle to the finish for the NCAA Division I championship.

It’s the month when basketball powerhouses seek to reaffirm their status and unknown schools and players become overnight basketball legends.

Overshadowed by the fan enthusiasm and newspaper and television cameras is the largely ignored and sobering fact that many of these celebrated Division I basketball players will never graduate or play professionally. These players, increasingly a person of color over the past decade, make up the embarrassing downside of NCAA basketball, a situation largely ignored by the academic leaders who count on revenue from intercollegiate sports, especially basketball and football, to fuel their athletic programs.

“I just absolutely resent the fact that too many universities just use these athletes. They don’t help them become students,” says Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “They just use them (the students) to make money for the university, use them up, don’t help them get a degree, and they (the student athletes) leave with nothing to show for it,” says Duncan.

Duncan has repeatedly called NCAA and member schools to task over what he and other critics describe as an unacceptable level of commitment to the education of student athletes. Duncan’s tough language is backed by volumes of research in the past decade by a variety of groups advocating a greater balance between academic and athletic achievement. The groups range from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a Knight Foundation-funded panel that has advocated changes in college athletics, to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, a University of Central Florida research center headed by Dr. Richard Lapchick. The institute tracks academic performance and graduation rates among student-athletes at major colleges that are bowl and tournament bound.

For several years, the institute has conducted annual studies of the graduation success rates, or GSR, and academic progress rates, or APR, of NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament-bound teams, among other segments of men’s athletics and women’s basketball.

In its most recent report on men’s teams in the March 2011 March Madness NCAA basketball tournament, the institute found a 66 percent graduation rate for all male basketball student-athletes, two points higher than the findings of its study a year earlier. The study determined that among White players there was a 91 percent graduation rate, while Black players had a 59 percent graduation rate. The study also found the graduation-by-race gap widening year after year, as the rate of graduation for Whites continues to rise at a much faster pace than that for Blacks.

In separate data gathered by the NCAA, the graduation rate for men’s basketball players at most HBCUs was even worse. In commenting on his institute’s March 2011 report, Lapchick said, “The report presents good news about the overall graduation rates, which continue to rise for both White and African-American basketball student-athletes. APR also rose.

“However, the staggering gap between the graduation rates of African-American and White student-athletes grew by four percentage points to an even more unacceptable 21 percent,” Lapchick continues. “This was the third successive year the gap grew from 22 percent in 2009 to 28 percent in 2010 to the current 32 percent.”

Achievement Gap Woes

Members of the academy offer a range of explanations for the graduation rate news. Many freshmen enter college underprepared and find the demands to produce in sports activities and in class simply overwhelming, they note. The students’ poor grades eliminate them, even in cases where teachers have tried to help. There are students whose one-year scholarship (standard in the industry) is not renewed as coaches drop them in favor of new talent that can help win more games. Some student-athletes leave college before graduating for a chance to play professional ball.

Others cite practice and game schedules that span much of a school year as a factor in the inability of student-athletes to achieve, especially basketball players who spend the fall semester practicing daily and late fall and winter-spring semesters facing competitors. Absent intense focus on academic achievement and rigid enforcement of study programs, student-athletes can easily fall behind in studies and miss multiple classes trying to juggle the demands of their sport and their academic schedule.

For sure, there are noted graduation success stories touted by such schools as Vanderbilt and Belmont universities. They help offset the track record of such schools as the University of Maryland and the University of Tennessee, both cited by Secretary Duncan in an interview with Diverse.

There are reform advocates who contend that the graduation and academic progress report numbers that are being produced mask the depth of the student-athlete academic achievement problem at some schools.

NCAA reform advocate and watchdog Dr. David Ridpath says there are many examples of students graduating in an area of study that “doesn’t lend to an effective career. … We need to shame these institutions into doing the right thing,” says Ridpath, associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University and a past president of The Drake Group, a small organization of university officials and teachers advocating athletic program reforms.

Ridpath and others cite anecdotal examples of student-athletes being put in classes or majors that may be academically easier to pass and in classes with teachers who are athletic-program friendly matchups that help ensure a student-athlete is able to maintain at least a grade point average that will keep him qualified to play another season. Those actions help a school keep a superior player in the game though he may be marginal, at best, in the classroom.

To defuse some of the criticism, some athletic officials cite studies and statistics, including those by Lapchick’s center, showing Black members on athletic teams in Division I tournament schools graduate at a higher rate (59 percent) than Black students who are not athletes (38 percent) at the same schools. Some athletic program officials also note that, among the 400,000 students in NCAA athletics each year, graduation rates are generally higher than graduation rates for the entire study body.

Regardless of the interpretation of the growing body of historical and anecdotal data, there is a growing consensus that intercollegiate athletics has evolved during the past two decades into a media- and money-driven enterprise with institutions, athletic directors, athletic conferences and parents placing far more emphasis on winning games, even if it’s at the expense of educating and graduating students who are also outstanding athletes.

“The message to these young people is a mixed one at best,” says college sports veteran Terry Holland, athletic director at East Carolina University. “We tell them that academics comes first, and graduation is your most important objective, and then we schedule regular season games, conference tournaments and NCAA championships during their class days, their exam periods and even during their graduation ceremonies,” Holland observes.

“Since these actions clearly speak louder than our words, the result is that the student-athletes, particularly in the revenue sports, place more emphasis on their sport than they do on attending class, doing their homework,” says Holland, a veteran of March Madness during his coaching years.

Holland, whose career in college athletics spans more than three decades, says many of the problems besetting college athletics today reflect how obsessed schools have become with attention and money.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Holland recalls, when Division I freshmen were ineligible to play in intercollegiate competition, there were a number of football and basketball scholarship students who were pre-med and pre-law. That number has “declined dramatically,” he say, since freshmen became eligible for competition, the number of games played each season was expanded, and the race to put more games on television led to games being scheduled during weekdays and at night.

The Business of College Basketball

Indeed, many interviewed echo Holland in asserting higher education is doing less than a stellar job balancing the importance of getting a good education with winning the next game, despite the fact that only about 2 percent of college basketball players make it to the professional ranks and very few of them last more than a few years because of injuries and the emergence of new and old talent weeding the field of talent. Winning games generates money for schools regardless of what happens to the players who win them. Successful college sports programs generate lots of money for coaches and their staffs to help finance new and bigger athletic facilities and to support other sports programs that do not generate enough money for their school to sustain themselves. The money is shared based on athletic, not athletic and academic, success.

Today, the NCAA Division I (about 300 institutions with major intercollegiate athletic programs) rewards member conferences with proceeds based on winning. The more tournament games won by schools in a conference, the more NCAA tournament game revenue schools in that conference are allocated and have to divide among themselves.

In April, for example, the NCAA plans to distribute more than $150 million (more than 35 percent of its revenue from last year) from its Basketball Fund based on success in the 2011 March Madness tournaments. There are no restrictions on how conference members are to use the funds. That amount is more than the $22.4 million NCAA Academic Educational Fund.

The lure of money is mirrored and magnified in most major college football programs, says Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. She notes that, next year, once all the contracts trigger on sports media agreements to televise major college football, the five major Bowl College Series conferences alone will collect a guaranteed $1 billion a year in media revenue, all of which the recipient conferences and their member schools can spend as they please.

With such lucrative revenue streams in place, the prospects of imposing major policy changes, even the kind that can significantly benefit students, are remote, say people across the gamut. There is no impetus for major change within the NCAA or BCS hierarchy, even with the secretary of education championing the cause, observers note.

There is some movement among NCAA Division I leadership, say reform advocates hoping recent small steps by Division I directors (a group of university presidents reflecting the larger body of institutional chief executives) might be the start of something big.

The Winds of Change?

Last fall the Division I board voted to boost academic standards by requiring incoming freshmen to have a minimum 2.3 grade point average in their core high school courses, an increase from 2.0. It voted to allow Division I schools to provide up to $2,000 a year in additional scholarship funding to student-athletes and voted to allow the awarding of multi-year scholarships.

The multiyear scholarship gave schools discretion to depart from the long-established standard of awarding high school athletes scholarships for one year, a rule that gave coaches considerable flexibility in dropping a student after his freshman year for any reason.

While the $2,000 decision was reversed by a vote of the majority of Division I members, the override was largely based on points of clarity and is expected to be reconsidered by late winter or early spring.

The Division I Board also voted to freeze the number of games and length of the playing season in all sports.

The steps were hailed by NCAA leaders as a major move toward addressing complaints about treatment of Division I student athletes. Reform advocates say the moves are in the right direction, hastening to add much more needs to be done to tie revenue apportionment to academic as well as athletic achievement. Holland and others suggest a return to the policy of requiring a year of residence prior to being able to represent a school in uniform. That kind of policy “allows every student to prove they can and will do the academic work necessary to graduate,” says Holland.

“That should be the standard since test scores, grades, et cetera, prior to enrollment are being manipulated in various ways to gain eligibility.” He also suggests it would be easier than many industry doubters say to revise schedules in a way that respects the academic needs of students engaged in intercollegiate sports.

Duncan, who credits Lapchick and the NAACP for helping focus attention on the academic performance issue, is calling on the NCAA and various conferences to overhaul their revenue allocation programs in a fashion that rewards more of the pie for academic performance and education efforts. Duncan lauds recent NCAA reform efforts but says there’s still work to do. “Not graduating a minimum of 50 percent of their players — to me, frankly, that’s a low bar — you simply bar them from the tournament, and I promise you this will clean up,” he says of schools.

The watchdog Drake Group shares Holland’s position in calling for a return to the one-year wait rule. It’s also promoting a shopping list of proposals it says will “dramatically improve the ‘academic integrity’ of college campuses.” The ideas include full disclosure of specific courses being taken and grade point averages of student-athletes, a move that could be done while respecting student privacy protections under the FERPA law.

The Drake Group suggests giving academic performance priority in cases where a student’s grade point average falls below 2.0. It also wants to replace the one-year renewable scholarship with need-based financial aid or multiyear athletic scholarships that extend graduation to a five-year maximum.

Lapchick says many groups are advancing a variety of good ideas, as are some coaches and individual schools.

“Our goal is to get the individual colleges as well as the NCAA to put together programs that ensure that not only the graduation rates increase but that the gap between the graduation rates of African-American and White student-athletes decreases,” says Lapchick. His widely anticipated update of the annual “Keeping Score When It Counts” report is due shortly. D

David Pluviose contributed additional reporting for this piece.