A return to progress for black male athletes in the NCAA tournament

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There are few sporting events that create the sense of anticipation and excitement that March Madness does. It is easy to forget that the players on the road to the Final Four are still, in fact, college students. Once the tournament is over these student-athletes are often forgotten, leading civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson to note that, "one of our primary concerns regarding the NCAA basketball tournament has been a history of what we have called 'March Madness and May Sadness' -- athletes who are celebrated for their dunks but fail to qualify for their diplomas."

Tuesday, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its annual "Keeping Score When It Counts: Academic Progress/Graduation Success Rate Study of 2018 NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Basketball Tournament Teams." The report covers the basketball student-athlete Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and Academic Progress Rate (APR) for the 68 men's tournament teams and 64 women's tournament teams. Women's tournament teams continue to raise the bar and graduate their players at a greater rate than the men's teams competing in the NCAA tournament. The GSR gap between African-American and white student-athletes for both men's and women's teams decreased in 2018 after increasing for male student-athletes in the 2017 report.

The overall Graduation Success Rate (GSR) for women's tournament teams is an all-time best 92 percent, which is an increase of 2 percentage points from 2017. In comparison, the men's tournament teams overall GSR was 78 percent -- returning to the levels from 2016 after a 2 percentage point decrease last year. Out of all of the women's and men's tournament teams, only four of the men's teams did not meet the 50 percent GSR benchmark. Upon seeing the results, Jackson said, "Dr. Lapchick's report this year shows an encouraging increase in graduation rates, which we hope is an indication that colleges are making a greater commitment to ensure that their athletes are WINNERS both on AND off the court."

An important milestone achieved by the men's tournament teams this year was that that 2018 marked the first year that not a single team fell below the NCAA's benchmark of a 930 APR. There was only one women's team that fell below this standard.

As in the past, the biggest area of concern has been the disparity in the GSR of African-American and white basketball student-athletes. I am discouraged that the gap has decreased by 1 percentage point this year to 18 percent as a result in a decrease in the GSR for whites rather than an increased GSR for African-Americans. The average GSR for African-American male basketball student-athletes remained the same at 74 in 2018. The average GSR for white male student-athletes decreased from 93 percent to 92 percent. The 18 percent gap is tied with the all-time low in 2016.

More impressive is the diminishing rate of the gap between female African-American and white basketball student-athletes. This year saw a 6 percentage point decrease from 9 in 2017 to just 3 percentage points in 2018, also an all-time low. The average GSR for African-American female basketball student-athletes increased from 87 to 91 percent which is an all-time high while that for white female basketball student-athletes decreased from 96 to 94 resulting in the three percent gap.

Arne Duncan, the former Secretary of Education and current head of the Knight Commission, noted that the 18 percentage point difference in graduation rates between white and African-American male players was "a dismaying sign of a lack of institutional commitment. The racial graduation rate gap among female players in March Madness is just 3 percentage points -- and the women come from the same schools and communities as the men."

Nonetheless, the shrinking racial gaps between men's and women's tournament teams is a promising sign of progress. We need to get these numbers get closer to zero in the coming years ahead.

An even greater disparity lies between student-athletes and their peers in the classroom. The 18 percentage point gap between graduation rates for white and African-American male basketball student-athletes demonstrates this impact between athletes. However, it must be emphasized that African-American male basketball student-athletes graduate at a much higher rate than African-American males who are not student-athletes. In 2017, the graduation rate for African-American male college students as a whole was only 40 percent, a full 34 percentage points lower than that for African-American male basketball student-athletes. The disparity for women was worse. African-American women college students have only a 49 percent graduation rate while their student-athlete peers have a 91 percent graduation rate. That is a massive 42 percentage point difference and is one of higher education's most egregious failings.

To improve, we also need to enhance the academic environment for high school and middle school students. That includes after-school programs. Jackson shared that "Our Rainbow Push Sports Program for high school players likewise emphasizes that the 'Student-Athlete' must always be a student first, spending just as much time with a book as they do with a ball. Even with the excitement of March Madness, the reality for most of these young stars is that this tournament will be the pinnacle of their athletic success, as only a very small percentage will ever make it to the professional level. Therefore, not doing well in school, completing their degree and preparing for their future is not an option."

Thankfully, there are institutions which are taking a lead on fostering an environment that emphasizes academic success. This year's report shows an increase in the number of teams with 100 percent GSRs. In 2018, the men's bracket had 12 teams with 100 percent GSR, up from 11 in 2017 while the women's bracket had 28 teams with 100 percent, a substantial increase of five teams from the 2017 result of 23. No women's team graduated less than 60 percent of their student-athletes compared to 12 in the men's bracket, which was an improvement from 15 teams in 2017. The women also led in the number of teams with perfect APR scores of 1000 with 16 while the men's teams trailed behind with nine.

Duncan added, "The TIDES study puts to rest the lie that top-notch basketball programs have to cheat on educating their players to compete for March Madness glory. Basketball powerhouses like Villanova, Kansas State, Duke, and the University of Arizona all graduate 100 percent of their players."

Unfortunately, even with these improvements, there are still 26 percent of the men's teams and 5 percent of the women's tournament teams with at least a 30 percentage point gap between the graduation rates of white and African-American basketball student-athletes on their teams.

In 2004, the NCAA introduced the APR as part of an academic reform package designed to more accurately measure student-athletes' academic success as well as 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 have mentioned in the past few years in this report and in my column on the graduation rates of bowl-bound college football teams, now is the time for the NCAA to raise the APR benchmark from 930 to a new figure that holds teams to the equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate. An APR of 930 is equivalent to a 50 percent graduation rate and this year, not a single men's team fell below that threshold. In fact, in the past five years, only 13 teams have been unable to reach an APR of 930. If we had raised the bar to an equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate this year, all 64 (100 percent) of the women's tournament teams and 56 (82 percent) of the 68 men's tournament teams would achieve this feat. Even further, 62 (97 percent) women's tournament teams and 47 (69 percent) men's tournament teams would be at 70 percent GSR or higher.

I also strongly suggest that schools be required to give student-athletes they are recruiting their record for graduating all student-athletes broken down by race. That would be yet another incentive for schools that need to do better actually put the resources in to improve their graduation rates. Sunshine always helps.

It is also critical that we do not undermine the importance of having a head coach on these teams that best represents the players on the court. In this year's report, there are 17 (25 percent) African-American head coaches in the men's tournament and nine (14 percent) in the women's tournament. The respective player representation numbers in Division I are 53 percent African-American males and 43 percent are African-American females.

The women's consistent progress year-after-year is very encouraging and should serve as a model for their male counterparts. Women's basketball student-athletes epitomize the balance that is needed to be a successful contemporary student-athlete.

Moving forward, it is critical for our nation's institutions to emphasize the futures of their student-athletes once that final buzzer sounds and the court goes dark. To do that, we need to establish increased accountability and raise the bar even higher. We need to hire the right coaches who better reflect those playing on the court to help assure that success. For now, I am thankful for this year's progress and hope to see that our student-athletes continue to perform at high levels off the court in the years to come.

Delise S. O'Meally, the executive director of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, summed up where we are approaching the Big Dance. "The relevance and significance of this data is that it underscores the true meaning of the student-athlete, and the true balance of academic and athletic achievement. When the cheers fade, the confetti is swept from the floor, the arena lights go dim and the championship slips into the history books, what remains is the strength of those universities and their academic commitment to their student-athletes. During the coming weeks, amid the excitement of March Madness, and Cinderellas who ruin our brackets, it serves us well to celebrate those who are doing it the right way, those who never fail to uphold the high standards of academia while also aiming for athletic excellence."

Brett Estrella contributed to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program 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.