As the prominent racial justice champion Cornell West said, "Race matters."
As men's and women's basketball teams take the court in the NCAA tournament this week, there is so much joy and happiness on the campuses involved. The hard work of the student-athletes who have brought their schools to this point will be applauded in so many ways.
But there is one fact about the teams in the tournament and the coaches who lead the teams that makes West's statement relevant. Race matters because among all the men's teams participating, 91 percent of white student-athletes graduate while 59 percent of African-American student-athletes graduated in the most recent six-year timeframe.
That gap is why Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, NAACP president Ben Jealous and I announced support for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics' proposal to distribute tourney revenue according to academic progress rates (APR) and not just according to wins and losses.
We seek change, knowing that graduation rates for both African-Americans and whites have increased dramatically -- whites gained more than 15 percentage points, up from 76 percent in 2006, while African-Americans gained 10 percentage points, up from 49 percent. However, these improvements are tempered by the fact that the gap between the groups has grown from 22 percentage points in '06 to a startling 32 percentage points.
"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," Duncan said. "As the Knight Commission has recommended, the NCAA should overhaul its tournament revenue distribution formula to make sure it stops richly rewarding success on the court with multimillion dollar payouts to schools that fail to meet minimum academic standards."
This year both whites and African-Americans are at their all-time high in graduation rates. When we look at the APR, which measures the academic progress of current student-athletes on the teams, the news is also good. Last year 19 teams fell below a 925 score, which indicates a 50 percent graduation rate. This year only 10 men's teams and three women's teams fell below that score. Since the average graduation rate of basketball student-athletes overall is now 66 percent, I also propose that it is time that the target score be raised to the equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate.
"The NAACP supports measures that ensure schools do just as much to help student-athletes earn a college degree as they do to win a national championship," Jealous said. "We must emphasize the academic success needed to allow students to be all-stars in their career field."
Higher standards and restrictions on tournament payouts based on academic achievement would challenge schools. According to the Knight Commission, "men's basketball teams failing to meet minimal academic standards [that 925 APR score] have earned nearly $179 million from their success in the past five NCAA basketball tournaments."
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 team's conference. Of the $409 million distributed under the NCAA's formula for rewarding performances in the five most recent tournaments, nearly 44 percent was received by teams that were not on track to graduate at least 50 percent of their players.
We also supported the Knight Commission's call to ban teams from the tournament that have below a 925 score. Coupled with the academic reform by late NCAA president Myles Brand -- scholarships can be taken away for low APRs -- there would be incentive to pair academic excellence with athletic achievement, and punishment for those who consistently violate the expected norms.
"The financial rewards for winning cannot continue to far outweigh the penalties for academic failings," said Knight Commission co-chairman R. Gerald Turner, president at Southern Methodist University. "The commission believes tournament slots, and the financial rewards that accompany them, should be reserved for teams that meet legitimate academic standards. The commission first advocated for a 50 percent graduation rate benchmark for postseason eligibility in 2001. While the NCAA has taken important first steps, the current standards remain too low."
At the same time, men's basketball has been the one sport at the college level where opportunities for African-Americans to be head coaches seem wide-open. What basketball had accomplished was always pointed out whenever reports were made about the poor record of schools in hiring African-American head football coaches. The historical success Georgetown's John Thompson and Temple's John Chaney had in the NCAA tournament gave them a platform to speak out about the need for more opportunities and against racism.
However, the percentage of African-American head coaches in Division I basketball has gone from 25 percent in the 2005-06 season to 21 percent in 2010-11, a substantial and alarming drop.
We need to celebrate the improving graduation success rates of our students. But we also need to look deeper.
"We have been ignoring the situation regarding college basketball head-coaching opportunities because the record had been so good for so long," said Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches and Administrators. "Now with this new information, we must pay more attention to who is hired and who is fired in men's college basketball. We finally created a combination of pressure points that helped move college football from three coaches of color on Dec. 8, 2008, to 18 coaches of color who will be head coaches starting in the 2011 season. That was a 500 percent increase. It can be done where there is a will."
So as we celebrate the great play on the court and also the increased academic performances in the classroom, we cannot forget that race still matters.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.