After years of increases for black male student-athletes in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, there were three noteworthy reversals of those trends this year.
On Tuesday, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its yearly report, "Keeping Score When It Counts: Graduation Success and Academic Progress Rates for the 2017 NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Basketball Tournament Teams." The report contains the student-athlete graduation success rate (GSR) and academic progress rate (APR) for the 68 men's tournament teams and 64 women's teams.
Women's tournament teams continue to graduate their players at a greater rate than the men's teams in the NCAA tournament. While the gap between black and white female basketball student-athletes continued to decrease in 2017, the gap between black and white male basketball student-athletes increased for the first time since 2011.
The overall GSR for women's tournament teams is 90 percent, up from 89 percent in 2016. The GSR for men's tournament teams is 76 percent, a decrease of 2 percent. All 64 of the women's teams have at least a 50 percent GSR, and 63 of the 68 men's teams met this 50 percent GSR benchmark. Also, no team in the women's field fell below the NCAA's minimum APR. On the men's side, the University of New Orleans fell under that minimum 930 score.
A major area of emphasis in our study is the disparity in the GSR of black and white basketball student-athletes. The gap between black and white male basketball student-athletes rose from 18 percent to 19 percent over the past year. This was not only the first increase in the gap since 2011, but the average GSR for black male basketball student-athletes dropped for the first time since we began these reports in 2003. The average GSR for black male basketball student-athletes decreased from 75 percent to 74 percent in 2017, while the average GSR of white male basketball student-athletes remained at 93 percent.
On the other hand, the gap between black and white female basketball student-athletes continued to decrease, from 10 percent to 9 percent in 2017. The average GSR for both black and white female basketball student-athletes increased in 2017, rising from 85 percent to 87 percent and from 95 percent to 96 percent, respectively.
The gap between black and white student-athletes on men's teams compared to the gap on women's teams presents another troubling trend. Last year, the racial gap between men's and women's tournament teams was at 8 percentage points, while this year's study reveals a 10 percentage point gap. This is the third significant positive-trend breaker, as it marks the first increase in the racial gap between men's and women's tournament teams since the 2011 report.
I am encouraged by the smaller racial gap among women's tournament teams, which proves that achieving these rates is possible. I hope men's teams will strive to reduce this disparity for their student-athletes so that the racial gap between men's and women's tournament teams will decrease.
One area of success for the men's tournament teams was the increase in the number of teams with a GSR of 100 percent. This year the men's bracket had 11 teams with a GSR of 100 percent, up from 10 in 2016, while the women's bracket had 23 teams with 100 percent, the same as in 2016.
Only two of the women's teams graduated less than 60 percent of their student-athletes, compared to the men's tournament with 15 teams below 60 percent. Furthermore, it is still not acceptable that in 2017, 5 percent of the women's tournament teams and 22 percent of the men's teams had a gap of 30 percentage points or greater between the graduation rates of white and black basketball student-athletes on their teams.
This study also examines the APR of tournament teams, and I was encouraged to see there were 11 teams (up from four in 2016) in the women's tournament field and seven (up from four in 2016) in the men's field that scored a perfect APR score of 1,000.
In 2004, the NCAA introduced the APR as part of an academic reform package designed to more accurately measure student-athletes' academic success and to improve graduation rates at member institutions. The APR holds each team accountable for the success of student-athletes in the classroom and their progress toward graduation. Individual teams are penalized if they fall below an APR score of 930, which is an expected graduation rate of 50 percent of its student-athletes. Schools falling below that can lose scholarships and/or become ineligible for postseason play.
As I mentioned in my column on the graduation rates of bowl-bound college football teams, it is time to raise the bar to the equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate. While that may have been hard to imagine in 2004, in the last two years only two schools (University of New Orleans this year and Southern University last year) have been below the 930 APR standard, and only 13 have been below it in the last four years combined.
Athletes and teams are prepared to compete at the next level. We need to institute that now. If we raised the APR to the equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate this year, 62 of the 64 women's tournament teams (97 percent) and 53 of the 68 men's tournament teams (78 percent) would be at 60 percent or higher. In fact, 60 of the 64 women's tournament teams (94 percent) and 47 of the 68 men's tournament teams (69 percent) would be at 70 percent GSR or higher.
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told me, "Overall, it's encouraging to see grad rates continue to climb. It's a great lesson that when you actually raise the bar, people respond. It's a good time to consider raising the bar again. The discouraging news here is the increasing disparity in black/white grad rates. We must demand those colleges contributing to that divide change their behavior."
In the December column on football graduation rates, we took a first look at the effect a black head coach might have on the academic progress of black (and white) student-athletes.
Only 10 percent of FBS head coaches are people of color. Nearly 54 percent of FBS football student-athletes were black (53.8 percent). Might they perform better in class with a coach who looked like them? We looked at the teams coached by blacks in the bowl games, and the overall GSR average was 75 percent. Teams coached by a black head coach had an average GSR of 84 percent. Equally noteworthy, the combined graduation rate for black student-athletes coached by black head coaches was 71 percent, versus the 68 percent average for the bowl-bound teams.
There are nine black head coaches in the men's NCAA tournament (16 percent) and 10 in the women's tournament (16 percent). By comparison, 54.8 percent of Division I men's basketball student-athletes are black and 26.8 percent are white, and 45.4 percent of Division I women's basketball student-athletes are black and 34.8 percent are white.
Men's basketball teams coached by black head coaches had a slightly higher APR (973 versus 971). On the women's side, teams coached by white head coaches had a slight edge in APR (985 versus 978). The gap between the GSR of black and white student-athletes on teams coached by blacks was 13 percent compared to the overall 19 percent gap.
As with the fall football stats, these are encouraging but very preliminary results indicating positive academic results for black student-athletes coached by black head coaches.
Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, underlined this to me today: "For too many of our young men, the ritual of spring, the NCAA basketball tournament, remains what it has long been, a case of March Madness, May sadness. While the women continue to graduate at a higher rate than the men by a considerable clip, there is still much room for improvement all around."
History shows that women's basketball student-athletes will continue to succeed, and I hope the men will resume getting better. There are too many futures at stake for these student-athletes when the final buzzer sounds. We need to raise the academic bar now and hire more coaches who look like the student-athletes they coach to help assure that success.
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. 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 president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook. Todd Currie and Destini Orr contributed to this column.