Education secretary calls for NCAA tourney reform

Posted March 17, 2011, at 8:57 p.m.
Last modified March 17, 2011, at 9:19 p.m.

TAMPA, Fla. — U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is backing a call from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics to toughen the academic requirements and revenue distribution system for NCAA postseason basketball.

A Knight Commission analysis released Thursday found that, over the past five years, nearly $179 million was earned for athletic conferences by tournament teams that weren’t on course to graduate at least half their players.

The commission developed its report with help from research by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics that showed 10 of the 68 teams in the men’s tournament this year didn’t meet the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate goal of being on track to graduate at least 50 percent of their players. Duncan and Knight Commission officials believe only teams that meet the threshold should qualify for tournament play. Their position was supported by the NAACP and UCF researchers.

Teams that aren’t graduating players “should simply not have a chance to compete,” Duncan said during a teleconference. “If you can’t manage to graduate half of your players, how serious is a coach and the institution about their players’ academic success?”

Under the NCAA’s revenue distribution plan, each game played in the NCAA basketball tournament in 2011 earns more than $1.4 million for the each team’s conference.

Of the $409 million distributed in the five most recent tournaments under the NCAA’s formula for rewarding performances, the Knight Commission reported that nearly 44 percent was earned by teams with APRs below 925, equivalent to graduating half of a team’s players.

UCF’s institute released its annual reports this week on the graduation rates of teams that qualified for both the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments.

It found a 2 percent overall graduation rate increase to 66 percent for men’s Division I players, with 76 percent of men’s programs in the tournament graduating at least 50 percent of their players. It also showed the rate for white players is increasing more substantially than the rate for black players.

The gap has grown from 22 percent in 2009 to a current level of 32 percent. White players show a 91 percent graduation rate, which is up 7 percent. Black players have a graduation rate at 59 percent, up 3 percent from last year’s study. This is the third straight year the racial gap has increased.

Only five schools (Boston University, Northern Colorado, Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, North Carolina-Ashville) had graduation rates for black players that were higher than their figures for white players. Belmont, BYU, Illinois, Notre Dame, Utah State, Vanderbilt, Villanova and Wofford graduated all of their players, black and white.

All the teams competing in the women’s NCAA tournament graduated at least 50 percent of their players. And 91 percent of the teams graduated at least 70 percent of their players, compared to 48 percent of the men’s tourney teams.

As is the case with the men, a racial disparity exists between white and black players on the women’s side, but the gap is not nearly as wide.

Duncan said that while he would want the same standards for men’s and women’s teams, that the shortcomings are a lot more pronounced on the men’s side.

According to the UCF institute report, the 10 men’s tournament teams that did not meet the NCAA’s current APR standard were: USC, Syracuse, Kansas State, Purdue, Alabama State, Morehead State, San Diego State, Alabama-Birmingham, UC Santa Barbara and Texas-San Antonio.

NAACP president and CEO Ben Jealous said that his group plans to visit all of the schools that are currently below the APR standard during the coming year. He said they hope to get commitments and plans from all the schools on how they can improve, noting what he called “unconscionable” disparities among the graduation rates of black and white players at some schools.

“Shame is a great motivator,” Jealous said. “Right now we tolerate coaches that are preparing their athletes for success on the court, but failure in life. … Word has to be going down the line that we expect all their athletes to graduate and that the schools will help them to.”

The primary author of the UCF institute’s reports, Richard Lapchick, said he’s excited to support the call of the secretary and NAACP. Lapchick said earlier this week that he would like to see the NCAA’s APR standard go up to 60 percent.

“Things are getting better, but we have to focus on those that are consistent violators,” he said.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said Thursday that he would take the secretary’s call seriously.

“Secretary Duncan and I have spoken on a number of occasions about educational attainment issues, (including) his concern, that I share, about the preparation that young men and women bring in to college today, and that we all need collectively to improve on that,” he told reporters during a news conference at Washington’s Verizon Center, a site of second- and third-round men’s tournament games.

The Knight Commission has been advocating NCAA tournament eligibility and revenue being tied to school’s ability to graduate half their players since 2001. Executive Director Amy Perko said that the feedback they have gotten so far from the NCAA has been positive and that though it hasn’t set a timetable for reviewing its standard that “it’s on the table.”

“Strength of comments and commitment from the secretary and NAACP will be critical to universities and the NCAA as they work to make changes,” she said. “There have been improvements, but standards are too low and the bar needs to be raised.”

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