The mis-education of the black athlete

by Prez Ro 

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It’s that time of the year again, college graduation season. This is the time after four long years (five for some, shout out to the Super Seniors), when students are getting prepared to walk across the stage and make their family proud. When it comes to a large percentage of black athletes this day will never happen. They have been advised to make that jump from college to the pros early; due to “how high” they can go in the draft, and how much money they can make. A lot of these students take the jump, and unfortunately a lot has to do with their living situation.

For nearly 50 years, the NCAA has debated its minimum academic requirements for first-year students who hope to compete in big-time college sports. In its various attempts to ensure an acceptable level of precollegiate learning and skill competencies, the NCAA has vacillated between lowering and raising entrance standards, seemingly unable to determine the correct balance.

In its most recent set of reforms, in 2003, it established new standards for initial eligibility. Responding to charges of the disparate impact on minorities of standardized-exam requirements, the new rules afforded minority athletes greater access to higher education by creating a sliding scale for grade-point averages and standardized-test scores, while abandoning a minimum requirement of a composite 17 on the ACT or 820 on the SAT.

After several years of trial and error, it is time to examine the outcomes of those relaxed initial eligibility standards. The verdict? Having led to only modest gains in both African-American participation and federal graduation rates in the most visible sports—men's basketball and football—the 2003 changes have failed to help achieve the NCAA's stated goals of increasing the number of minority athletes who graduate from college. Even more important, the academy has been diminished in the process: The lower test-score standards, combined with high-school grade inflation, have led to greater numbers of athletes who qualify with very low test scores. Those students possess inadequate skills to manage college academics, creating a greater need for academic-support services at institutions already struggling with strained budgets, staffs, and faculties.

Since the onset of the program, in 2003, gains in minority access to higher education through big-time college sports have been negligible. The NCAA's "Student-Athlete Ethnicity Report" tracked the participation rates of self-reported ethnicity classifications, by team, each year from 1999 to 2009, and showed that since the change in initial eligibility standards, only a slight increase has been realized in African-American participation in the sports of basketball and football in Division 1 athletics—even though in the four-year period leading up to 2003 reforms, there was a steady increase of minority participants who met the higher standards of a minimum test-score requirement.

During the several years before the NCAA's academic reform, from 1999 to 2002, the African-American participation rate in Division 1 men's basketball increased 2.9 percentage points, from 55.0 to 57.9 percent. But it rose only three points, to 60.9 percent, between 2003 and 2009, after the reforms. The same growth trend was evident in football: African-American participation increased steadily from 39.5 percent to 43.8 percent, between 1999 and 2002, but only two points, to 45.8 percent, from 2003 to 2009. According to the NCAA's reports on Division I federal graduation rates of African-American student-athletes, the most recent data for men's basketball revealed a one-point decline in the 2003 cohort, to 43 percent, and football increased just one point, to 48 percent, over the previous year.

Finally, there is the financial impact on colleges. In addition to the reduced academic requirements enacted in 2003, the NCAA assigned punitive actions—including the elimination of a team's athletics-related financial aid, banning from postseason championship participation, restrictions on NCAA membership rights, and public censure—for institutions whose teams did not meet retention, eligibility, and graduation thresholds.

Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently suggested that in order to earn an NBA paycheck the required age must be 21. If they aren’t educated about business, etc., will it really help? You see the stories of the bankrupt athlete, but is it their age to blame? Is it their agents? Is it their lack of education? Or is it their upbringing? I think it could be slightly all of the above, mixed in with the strong attraction of fame. What I always see is that it’s always focused on the black athlete, when you also have white athletes who leave school early, mismanage money and have children out of wedlock. So how about we put the focus on the broader picture? The bottom line is it’s about the money, as long as there’s plenty to be made, education will fall in the background. I say this about not only the black athletes, but about any athlete. Yes you have the talent; yes you have the money, but don’t let society “play” you for a dummy (I did not mean to rhyme LOL). Get that paper…not just the green.

Statistics from predominately white schools have reported close to 70% of white athletes graduate, compared to the 20% of black athletes who achieve commencement. It seems Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) are left off this list where the majority of their athletes do graduate. When you have a Black athlete who is interested in pursuing a degree, a lot of times he is discouraged from staying his senior year. So they take the money and leave. There are some who decide to finish school. I’m sure a lot of us remember Vince Carter, then with the Toronto Raptors, going to his graduation and being ridiculed for it because he had a playoff game. Playoffs? Playoffs? True, the Raptors lost the game, but isn’t basketball a team sport? Maybe, he had an off game (a la LeBron…*ducks from Nikes being thrown by Cleveland Cavaliers Fans*).

In an interview with USA Today, Secretary Duncan suggests that the NCAA should use its own standard as the metric to measure tournament teams and proposes bans for teams with an APR lower than 925, which predicts a graduation rate of roughly 50% of a team’s players.

“The math on this is not complicated,” Secretary Duncan stressed. “If you can’t graduate one in two of your student athletes, I just question the institutional commitment to academics. And I think if the NCAA were to draw a line in the sand, you’d see this behavior change very rapidly.”

Additionally, new analysis released March 17, 2011 by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics shows that nearly $179 million, or nearly 44 percent, of the $409 million the NCAA awarded for basketball success in the past five tournaments was earned by teams failing to meet minimal academic standards.

According to Bloomberg, the Knight Commission, which was formed in 1989 by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in response to more than a decade of highly visible scandals in college sports, recommends that colleges on track to graduate less than half of their team members should be barred from competing. The Knight Commission also recommends that the NCAA should alter its payouts for the men’s basketball tournament to reward schools with higher graduation rates.

According to a similar study conducted on female NCAA basketball teams, white female basketball players on tournament-bound teams graduate at a rate of 92% compared to 84% of black players on those teams—a 12% gap. In addition, researchers found that 0% of the women’s teams graduated less than 40% of players, compared to 10% of the men’s teams.

“The NCAA, university presidents and coaches have to stop rounding up the usual suspects to explain away the poor academic records and indefensible gaps in graduation rates of white and black players on a small number of men’s basketball teams,” Secretary Duncan said.

The NCAA insists that its academic reforms are working. It announces its manufactured Academic Progress Rates and graduation-success rates each year with much fanfare. But that self-congratulation should be tempered by the very real costs to institutional integrity and to the athletes themselves. When higher graduation rates come at the expense of underprepared athletes, who squeak through college after being guided into majors with an abundance of elective hours and little discernible preparation for life after sports, the costs are excessive. When we admit athletes who cannot read or understand college textbooks and who lack the necessary skills to compete in the classroom, the costs are excessive. When athletic departments pressure admissions committees and routinely appeal denials to college presidents, the costs to institutional integrity are out of balance.

One has to question the motives of those who designed the NCAA's latest attempt at academic reform. Did the NCAA sacrifice academic integrity in the interest of improving the entertainment product? That has been the result, intentional or not.

The NCAA must re-establish freshman eligibility standards for athletes that ensure a minimum skill set to compete in the classroom. In addition to reinstating minimum standardized-test scores, incorporating an additional measurement of reading and mathematics skills may be necessary. The NCAA and college presidents must be certain that every athlete is equipped to take advantage of a college education; to do otherwise is an empty and unfulfilled offer. For every time a college president caves to a coach's appeal to admit a woefully underprepared athletic phenom—holding the winning aspirations of the coach over the well-being of a student who would be a better fit at another institution—that college suffers an irreparable blow.

“A well-informed mind is the best security against the contagion of folly and of vice. The vacant mind is ever on the watch for relief, and ready to plunge into error, to escape from the languor of idleness.” -Ann Radcliffe

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Read more: Low College Athlete Graduation Rates Causing Concern during March Madness - Blog

Read more: Low College Athlete Graduation Rates Causing Concern during March Madness - Blog

Read more: Low College Athlete Graduation Rates Causing Concern during March Madness - Blog

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