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Lapchick on a Mission: Focusing on the Student in Student-Athlete

As the best of men’s college basketball converge in Detroit this weekend for the Final Four and the women’s game faces its National Championship test in St. Louis, it’s appropriate to take a moment and remember that these incredible players are students. Their prolific skills on the hardwood get them television airtime, but their efforts in the classroom are likely to shape the rest of their lives.

That’s why Dr. Richard Lapchick produces his own scorecard, of sorts, on which of these top schools for athleticism graduate their basketball and football players, paying particular attention to schools that leave their Black student-athletes sitting on the graduation sideline.

“I think of myself as an activist first,” says Lapchick, who has spent virtually his entire professional career tackling diversity issues, focusing on what he sees as the power of sport to propel social change. He is the director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, which publishes studies examining the graduation rates and academic progress rates (APR) for teams involved in Division I basketball and football.

Lapchick, 63, grew up enmeshed in the realities of college and professional sports. His late father, Joe Lapchick, played center for the Boston Celtics and then went on to a successful coaching career, first at St. John’s College, then with the New York Knicks and then back to St. John’s, where Richard Lapchick would eventually earn his bachelor’s. He recalls, as a 5-year-old boy, looking out the window of the family’s Yonkers, N.Y., home to see his father’s image swinging from a tree across the street with people under the tree picketing. He recalls picking up the telephone and hearing people shout, “Nigger lover.”

Years later, Lapchick learned these grotesque actions were prompted by the Knicks signing one of the first three Black players in the history of the NBA.

When Lapchick was 11, he found his father, upon his return from St. John’s one day, crying.

“When he composed himself, he told me that what he was upset about was he had found out that day that his players weren’t going to class,” he recalls. But they were still playing on the college team. “He realized that he was an employee and a representative of an institution of higher education, and he had never asked his players about classes they were taking, what they were majoring in, what they were going to do when they graduated or if they were going to graduate.

“He went back the next day with his then-assistant coach, Lou Carnesecca, and they started the first mandatory study hall in the history of college sports, which is now on every college campus, at any of the divisions. That had a huge impact on me thinking about this at an early age.”

Studying political science, Lapchick wrote his doctoral dissertation on how South Africa, isolated internationally, used sports as a public relations vehicle to divert attention from the true nature of apartheid. He compared it to how the Nazis had utilized the same tactic, in their failed attempt to showcase Arian superiority during the 1936 Olympics. It was the first dissertation on sport that wasn’t in a physical education department. He earned the first Ph.D. in the country in international race relations at the University of Denver.

In the 1970s, Lapchick was integrally involved in the anti-apartheid movement and his efforts to get a Davis Cup match between the United States and South Africa to be played at Vanderbilt University cancelled led to a savage attack that nearly cost Lapchick his life.

He realized if he was going to discuss issues about racism and sexism in sports, he needed facts and figures to back up what he was saying. In 1984, Lapchick helped found the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston and served as its director for 17 years.

In 2002, the president of the University of Central Florida and the dean of the business school spoke to him about what direction to take with a new sports management program endowed by Richard DeVos, owner of the Orlando Magic.

“I discovered that there were no programs at that taught diversity,” Lapchick says. “There were 67 sports management graduate programs in the country at the time and there were no programs that had community service as a part of it.”

Lapchick built the DeVos Sport Business Management master’s program, with “diversity, community service, ethics and leadership as its pillars.” The program is also unique in the diversity of its students: 45 percent individuals of color, 60-70 percent women, 60-70 percent former student-athletes. Students are listed as co-authors on the many TIDES studies and books released each year addressing issues of racial and gender inequities in college and professional sports.

“They’re smart, and they come here because they believe sport can be a vehicle for social change. Our goal is to send out 25-30 students a year with that philosophy and diverse backgrounds into the industry to be harrows of change,” he says.

For the record, of the men’s Final Four Michigan State University has a 60 percent graduation success rate, the University of Connecticut 33 percent, Villanova University 89 percent and the University of North Carolina 86 percent. Michigan State graduated just 43 percent of its Black basketball players, Connecticut 22 percent, Villanova 86 percent and North Carolina 80 percent.


Among the women, both Connecticut and Stanford University graduate 100 percent of their basketball players, the University of Louisville 80 percent and the University of Oklahoma 69 percent. The graduation rates were based on whether freshmen who entered school between the 1998-1999 and 2001-2002 school years earned their degrees within six years.

Lapchick unabashedly says he loves coming to work every day at the Institute, which is the NCAA’s official diversity management training program and also provides diversity management training for professional sports leagues and teams. He hopes that the reports aren’t merely read but that they cause a reaction and that people ask, “What can we do to change things?”

“We use the publication of the data to get ideas out there how things can become different,” Lapchick says. “Part in hiring practices, part in graduation rates and the academic success of the student-athletes.”

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