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Is Winning Everything?

A student’s performance on the basketball court undeniably brings money into the coffers of many schools. At the same time, too many of the athletes, particularly Black student-athletes, are underperforming academically and are at risk of losing their NCAA eligibility and, more important, failing in college overall.  

When the University of Kentucky Wildcats won the NCCA Division I Basketball Championship this spring, the victory did more than put another big trophy in the showcase of the venerable intercollegiate sports powerhouse. It helped ensure the financial outlook for what has become a phenomenal, and oft-times controversial, money-making machine for all involved.

Days after the final buzzer of the NCAA championship game went silent, the entire Wildcats starting lineup—three freshmen and two sophomores—said they were entering the June draft of the National Basketball Association (NBA). So did senior Darius Miller.

In 2010, freshman John Wall left Kentucky after one season and went on to sign a three-year deal with the Washington Wizards worth $16.59 million. When asked if he thought Wall would return for his sophomore season, Wildcats Coach Calipari said, “He better not be.”

It is not that Calipari would not have welcomed his freshman guard back for another season; he just did not feel the move would have been advantageous to his player.

“I am saying that, if he came to me and he was the No. 1 pick in the draft and he said that he wanted to come back, we would probably be wrestling around on the floor,” Calipari said on the “Dan Patrick Show” in 2010. “Because there is no reason other than me trying to win more games that he should come back.”

It seems that Kentucky didn’t miss a beat after Wall left, as, though the Wildcats lost in the Final Four to the University of Connecticut in 2011, they went on to win the national championship the following year. Following the championship win, Calipari was advised by Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart that he and two assistants were having their contracts boosted. Calipari was getting an 8.3-percent increase in his salary over the remaining seven years of his contract.

With base salary, sponsor endorsements and bonuses, Calipari’s annual pay would be raised to at least $5.2 million annually.

The big win boosted Kentucky’s apparel and novelty sales (of which the school gets

a percentage from vendors under trademark licensing agreements) and guaranteed the university would continue to get a big share of the media rights revenue doled out annually to athletic conferences by the NCAA for March Madness participants.

The win also made it easier for Kentucky to keep the 20,000-seat Rupp Arena filled. Wildcat season ticket holders spent an average of $728 per seat last year to see their team’s home games.

Leveling the Playing Field

According to “Keeping Score When It Counts,” the annual study of NCAA data on graduation rates and academic achievement, male basketball players on Division I tournament teams had an overall graduation rate of 67 percent in 2011. For Black student-athletes, the graduation rate was a little lower: 60 percent. The rate was 88 percent for their White counterparts.

The study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, or TIDES, based at the University of Central Florida, says that the gap found in its most recent study reflects a “continuing large disparity” between the graduation success rate of White basketball players at Division I schools and their Black counterparts.

The gap could widen if star Black student-athletes are unable to meet the increasingly higher academic standards and requirements being imposed by the NCAA, student-advocates say. The NCAA, criticized for years for maintaining unreasonably low academic standards for male student-athletes as a vehicle for keeping athletes on school teams, is under increasing pressure to boost academic standards as a means of addressing the low graduation and academic progress rates for male student-athletes attending Division I institutions.

These statistics, coupled with the news that all of Kentucky’s starters are declaring for the NBA draft this year rather than returning to play (and learn) another year, suggest that there is more of an emphasis on cultivating a winning environment, which in turn cultivates more revenue for the program than there is on producing student-athletes who will go on to be productive, self-sustaining members of society.

“There isn’t a windfall of cash from a championship as is commonly believed,” said A. DeWayne Peevy, senior associate athletic director for communications at Kentucky. “There’s not a specific dollar amount from one single NCAA Tournament. Revenue from the tournament is based on a conglomeration of league schools and their results in the tournament in a six-year cycle. That money is then divided in 13 pieces for each school at the conference (the Southeastern Conference, in this case),” said Peevy, a former Southeastern Conference official.

Fan support and revenue from winning have enhanced Kentucky’s athletic department’s coffers to the point that its budget for the 2011-2012 school year was $83.6 million, according to its public records.

That budget, which has increased year after year even as the state and nation’s economy fell starting in 2008, was based on anticipated revenue from intercollegiate football activities ($29.5 million), men’s basketball ($18 million), media rights ($11 million), the so-called K Fund ($16.6) million, sports camps ($2 million), trademark licensing agreements ($1.2 million) and an assortment of other sources that generate under $1 million per activity ranging from women’s basketball ($215,000) to “other men’s sports” ($75,000).

The athletic program revenue, which the athletic department trumpets is self-supporting with “no state or university funds,” helps finance 22 athletic programs (most of which lose money and must be subsidized).

The sports program generates enough revenue to fully fund more than 300 athletic scholarships. Its budget provides more than $1 million a year for the department’s Center for Academic and Tutorial Services, or CATS, program for student-athletes in need of academic support. The program gives the university more than $1 million a year for non-athletes and half a million dollars for radio advertising for non-athletic-program messages.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has joined forces with TIDES and others to encourage the NCAA into action, using the NCAA’s own data on graduation success rates, or GSR, and academic progress rates, or APR, at Division I schools as ammunition to push for tougher academic standards.

“The vast majority of teams and programs have their priorities right, and I think we must do so much to recognize and to celebrate their hard work and leadership,” Duncan told reporters on a March 14 conference call about the institute’s reports on men’s sports teams and women’s sports teams. “They strike a healthy balance between athletics and academics,” he said.

While Kentucky touts that it has “consistently posted strong numbers” in the

NCAA’s APR program, that achievement is helped by the NCAA rule that excludes student-athletes who leave before graduation to go professional from being counted as dropouts for the purposes of assessing the NCAA’s other important yardstick—graduation rates. The most recent assessment by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport of NCAA data on Division I graduation rates showed that, for the 2006 through 2010 student cohort, Kentucky graduated only 60 percent of its African-American student athletes, compared to 100 percent of its non-minority, or White, student-athletes.

As for student-athletes leaving, nine Kentucky basketball players have been drafted by NBA teams in the past two years.

“If a student jumps after one year in bad academic standing, then he counts against the school’s APR and GSR rates,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

David Ridpath, assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University and a leader in The Drake Group, also voices caution about the APR standards, calling them “manufactured.”

Ridpath, whose group has been pushing the NCAA to adopt clearer steps for measuring academic performance and also better financial reporting for academic departments, calls the APR a moving target.

“Whether they are seriously educating these students is up for debate,” Ridpath says. “Whether you come to school for one day or four years, as long as they are in college they need to be students.” D

-Autumn Arnett contributed to this story.

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