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Friday, March 18, 2005
Updated: March 22, 12:02 PM ET
Singin' the Grad-rate Blues

By Richard Lapchick
Special to Page 2

Fifty years ago, no one talked about graduation rates. The NIT – not the NCAA – was considered the real national collegiate basketball championship tournament. There was no March Madness. There were very few African-American basketball players in college sports. Television rarely covered a college event.

Many of us look back nostalgically on some aspects of those "good old days."

As 129 men's and women's teams hit the court last week with a dream of being in St. Louis or Indianapolis for that glorious final weekend of basketball in April, so, too, talk of those teams' graduation rates heated up. Sometimes, that talk elevates the spirits of a team if it has done well academically. More often, it throws a cold, wet blanket on college sports, as we are forced to recognize that perhaps our schools aren't living up to their promise – the promise that a student-athlete will have every opportunity to exit the halls of higher education with a degree and a meaningful education.

I direct the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. Last week, we released a study on the graduation rates of the NCAA Tournament teams. That study emphatically points out that college basketball does not do as well by its student-athletes as most other sports. A startling 45 Division I men's programs and 27 women's programs that recently finished up their regular seasons – some of which are still playing in the tournaments – have not graduated a single African-American student-athlete in the six-year period the study examined.

Graduation rates for women student-athletes, including African-American women, are much better than the rates for men. And white student-athletes in basketball generally did much better in this study than African-American student-athletes in basketball.

It should be pointed out that studies of graduation rates are flawed, and the manner in which graduation rates are currently compiled is unfair. Using the current methodology, a student-athlete who transfers in good standing and graduates from another institution counts as a non-graduate at the initial school. Also, the methodology does not count a junior-college student who transfers to a four-year college and graduates, or a former student-athlete who returns and graduates six years after his or her original enrollment.

I support the NCAA's current initiative to redefine how graduation rates are calculated. Nonetheless, at this point in time, the current graduation rates are our best measure of the success of our student-athletes.

Are low graduation rates a new problem? Are they simply overhyped because of the NCAA Tournament? The television? The money? The increasing number of African-American student-athletes?

What creates this ambiguous line between academics and athletics?

My dad is a Hall of Fame basketball player and coach. He coached for 30 years, including 20 years at St. John's (1936-45 and 1956-65) and 10 years with the New York Knicks (1945-56). He was my hero. I will always remember one day when he returned from St. John's early in the 1956 season. His pattern when he came home after practice was to go upstairs, change clothes, and then come back downstairs to read the Yonkers Herald Statesman and have a cup of coffee or perhaps an amber-colored drink over ice.

On this particular day, though, he did not come down. After about an hour, I became concerned that perhaps he was not feeling well, and went upstairs, to find him in tears. I had never seen any grown man in tears, let alone my father – who'd been described by the sports media as a "man's man" and the "first great big man" in basketball when he played for the Original Celtics. Men were not supposed to cry.

When he became composed, he explained what had upset him. His players were not going to class at St. John's, and yet were being passed through the system. He'd been told this was happening then, that it had been happening at St. John's during the 10 years he was with the Knicks, and that it had been happening even during his first 10 years at St. John's – all the way back to 1936!

My father was horrified on two levels. First, he considered himself a devout Catholic and could not believe that this was happening at a Catholic school. Second, he prided himself on his personal relationships with his players; and he realized, for the first time, that he'd never asked them what classes they were taking, what their majors were, or when -- and if -- they were ever going to graduate.

Here he was, an employee of an institution of higher education who had plenty of discussions with his players about their girlfriends, the work they did during the summer, and what they were going to do when their basketball-playing days were over. But he hadn't ever made the connection between basketball and higher education.

In 1956, my dad went back to St. John's with his then-assistant coach, Lou Carnesecca (who also became a Hall of Fame coach), and started what is believed to be the first mandatory study hall in the history of college sport.

While, unfortunately, our graduation rates in 2005 show that the basketball-academic connection has yet to be nailed down in too many places, I'm happy to say that it is being made at St. John's.

St. John's graduation rates in 2005 show that 100 percent of African-American and Latino basketball student-athletes graduated.

The story isn't as good at other places. Even among the women's teams, there is a disparity between the graduation rates for white and African-American student-athletes. However, in all cases, despite the disparity, the rates of graduation are significantly higher both for white and African-American women than for men.

Nowadays, every Division I school in the country has mandatory study halls for its student-athletes. Most have armies of tutors to help student-athletes study. But too often, the tutors and advisers report that their job responsibility is to ensure not the graduation of their student-athletes but rather their eligibility. Too many seem ready to accept an assumption that African-American student-athletes are not expected to graduate because they come from impoverished environments, where the primary and secondary schools do not have the capacity to prepare their students for college as wealthy suburban and private schools do.

While that is true, it can't be a call to surrender.

The story for men, especially African-Americans, is a continuing nightmare that has lasted for generations. But I am hopeful that an initiative led by NCAA president Dr. Myles Brand – to provide incentives for schools with high graduation rates and to impose penalties such as the loss of scholarships or tournament eligibility for schools that fall short of some reasonable graduation-rate goals – will restore confidence that institutions of higher education will deliver on the promise of a meaningful education to all students, including student-athletes in revenue-producing sports such as basketball.

We have lived all of these 70 years since my dad first took the court at St. John's with expectations that are far too low for student-athletes. These new standards will mark the first time a school can be penalized for doing a poor job academically. It is my fervent hope that we will begin the process of overhauling our system of academic preparation with these new standards, so that all college coaches and their student-athletes will feel the connection between academics and athletics.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 10 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.