After an opening round weekend of thrilling upsets and buzzer beaters, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament continues tomorrow evening with the 16 remaining teams battling for a spot in the Final Four. But while all of these squads have shown the ability to succeed in the postseason, many of them have failed to match this success in the classroom.
Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan proposed that teams with graduation rates below 40 percent be banned from postseason play. Duncan justified his idea, saying, “if you can’t manage to graduate two out of five players, how serious are the institution and the coach about their players’ academic success? How are you preparing student athletes for life?”
Curious to see how this proposal would affect the teams in this year’s Sweet Sixteen, Abdul Kargbo and Forrest Hinton have put together the video below, in which I talk through what would happen if the games were decided by graduation rates, not points scored. (This video is best viewed in full-screen mode on YouTube.)
The results show that clearly some teams are capable of properly balancing academics and athletics. Butler, Duke, Northern Iowa, and Xavier all have graduation rates above 75 percent. Other teams, however, clearly need to spend more time hitting the books. Washington (29 percent), Tennessee (30 percent), Kentucky (31 percent), and Baylor (36 percent) all fall below Duncan’s 40 percent threshold. (Cornell does not report GSR data because it does not award athletic scholarships.)
Obviously any proposal that kicks popular teams such as Kentucky and Tennessee out of the tournament is likely to be met with derision. And sure enough, Gregg Doyel over at CBSsports.com chimed in against the idea in a mostly ad hominen attack, calling both Duncan’s idea and a similar version that I proposed in this U.S. News and World Report column the work of eggheads, people who loathes who are “smarter than most people but dumber than everyone, walking around in khakis and sweaters because that’s how intellectual people dress, their smug noses so high in the air that they can’t see the rest of us shaking our heads in pity.” (For the record, I’m wearing khakis and a button down shirt today, but usually I’m in jeans. Though at 6’7″ I guess my nose is higher in the air than most people.)
Now before Doyel and others get all outraged at the unfairness of these figures and my poor taste in daily dress, I’d like to point out that these numbers are all calculated through the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate (GSR) formula. This calculation does not penalize a school that has players transfer out or leave early to play professionally so long as they are in good academic standing when they depart. So for example, a team like Georgia Tech, which Doyel cites as having sent several players into the pros, can’t blame its 38 percent GSR on just early departures. All those students had to do was leave school in good academic standing—roughly meaning a GPA of 2.0 and having earned 24 credits from the year before—a pretty low bar if you ask me.
But there’s an additional story behind the GSRs that also isn’t being told: the large gaps in success between black and white players. Seven of the Sweet Sixteen teams have 100 percent GSRs for their white players and two others are at or above 80 percent. Only two squads are above 80 percent for their black players and none have a perfect record. At Kentucky, there is an 82 percentage point difference between the GSR of their white and black players. Four other teams have gaps of 50 percentage points or more, including Baylor, which has a white GSR of 100 percent, but a black GSR of just 29 percent. That’s just shameful.
A fairer criticism of the GSR is that it’s a lagging indicator. It takes several years to know if students graduate, so any penalties are likely to hurt players that weren’t even enrolled at the time of academic failure. That’s an absolutely legitimate point, but there’s also a solution: Punish the coach.
Players come and go, but in most programs, a coach sticks around for a few years. As the people who recruit players and bring them to the school, coaches should be held accountable for the academic record of their student-athletes, just as they frequently are when team members are caught breaking the law. Banning low-graduation rate coaches from the tournament means thus solves the dilemma of not punishing current athletes while also adding greater accountability.
Holding coaches accountable also presents an opportunity to track individuals that produce serially low-academic performing squads. Currently, a coach can oversee a few years of winning teams and then pack up shop and move elsewhere before the extent of academic failures and other violations are known. Why should the school risk the loss of scholarships or other sanctions and not the individual who helped preside over the team that caused these problems?
For a handful of athletes, a college basketball scholarship can help them make the leap to a lucrative professional athletic career. But for the vast majority of players, it’s the skills picked up by obtaining a degree that will be key to their future success. Earnings data demonstrate that those with some college are only slightly better off than those with just a high school diploma and fall well below bachelor’s degree holders. Not helping players complete a degree while making millions of dollars off their on-court performance is a raw deal for student-athletes. That equation needs to change.
Thanks again to Abdul and Forrest for all their hard work on the video.