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Bowl-bound student-athletes improving but gaps still remain

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It is that time of year again where 78 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams are selected to participate in one of 39 bowl games. It is a great opportunity for the student-athletes to represent their schools, their fans, their friends and their families to wrap up the season.

Putting aside the revenue-generating benefits of a bowl game, it is important to remember that these athletes are still students enrolled in a college degree program. Less than two percent of the football student-athletes are given the opportunity to play professional football and the average National Football League (NFL) playing career is less than four years. This means the schools have a social responsibility to provide their student-athletes with the opportunity to receive a quality education and improve their post-football opportunities to continue representing their schools, their fans, their friends and their families as leaders within their communities. One of the NCAA's core values is "the pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics." I like to think academics is listed ahead of athletics for emphasis. How that is translated at the institutional level often depends on the head coach and how he communicates the emphasis. For coaches who value winning at all costs, the student in the student-athlete can often be shortchanged.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida on Monday released its annual "Keeping Score When It Counts: Assessing the Academic Records of the 2018-2019 Bowl-Bound College Football Teams." The report contains the football student-athlete Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and Academic Progress Rate (APR) for the 78 bowl-bound teams. The two biggest results are that the overall academic progress of college football student-athletes continued improving. However, the substantial gap between the graduation rates of white and African-American football student-athletes grew even wider.

The general football student-athlete GSR for bowl-bound teams is 79 percent, up from 77 percent in 2017. These rates have been consistently rising since the introduction of the concept of GSR. In fact, they have been improving for all football student-athletes, both white and African-American; 77 of the 78 teams participating in a bowl game this year had at least a 50 percent GSR.

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.

Just like last year, all of the 2018 bowl-bound schools achieved an APR of 930 or better. The average APR improved from 967 in 2017 to 970 in 2018. The top four teams in the FBS national championship playoff games, Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma have APRs of 984, 987, 966, and 956, respectively. Alabama and Clemson improved their APRs, with Notre Dame's APR declining by three points and Oklahoma's declining by nine points from 2017 to 2018.

Digging deeper into the numbers

There has been steady improvement in the APR and GSR rates and we have observed a consistent small decrease in the gap between African-American and white graduation rates. However, this year the gap increased to 17 percent. Progress in this area is taking far too long. In 1954 the United States Supreme Court declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional. In theory, African-American students have since then been able to have access to the same educational resources as white students.

As we know, there are still so many segregated schools across America that contribute to the fact that 64 years later we have that 17 percent gap between white and African-American football student-athletes. The average GSR for African-American football student-athletes is 73 percent, up from 71 percent in 2017. The average GSR for white football student-athletes is 90 percent, up from 87 percent in 2017. Eight bowl-bound schools had GSRs for African-American football student-athletes that were at least 30 percentage points lower than their rates for white football student-athletes. There are two bowl-bound schools, Louisiana Tech University and Oklahoma State University that have gaps of 44 percent and 40 percent, respectively. These ratios are simply unacceptable.

Emphasizing a focus on academic development

The NFL restricts athletes from entering the draft until they have been out of high school for three years. This policy allows future players to have an opportunity to develop academically and physically before entering the professional ranks. Since so few college football student-athletes make the professional ranks, the NCAA should be more concerned with their student-athletes' academic development than their athletic development.

The NCAA uses the school's APR and GSR metrics to attempt to motivate member schools to meet standards. The revised NCAA APR standards took effect in 2016 and now require schools to maintain a four-year average APR of 930. If schools do not meet the minimum APR, the NCAA will levy sanctions that consist of progressive penalties ranging from loss of scholarships, to loss of postseason competition, to restricted NCAA membership. But with an expectation of a low 50 percent graduation rate as measured by the 930 APR score, the standards are too low. This year every bowl-bound team beat that low mark. In fact, 2016 was the last year we witnessed a bowl eligible school fail to meet the minimum APR, and only five schools have failed to meet the minimum APR since 2013.

I have maintained that the minimum APR should be raised to a 60 percent graduation rate standard. In 2018, only three bowl-bound teams were below a 60 percent GSR and only six teams failed to reach an APR of 960. This is an improvement from 23 schools in 2017, and 40 schools in 2016 failing to reach an APR of 960. In 2018, 67 of the bowl-bound teams graduated at least 70 percent of their student-athletes.

College football bowl games provide schools with a considerable amount of funds that increase the school's ability to build or enhance athletic facilities and provide programs that enhance student-athlete physical development. The NCAA should consider factors that will ensure member schools provide an emphasis on academic development of their student-athletes.

How do we address the persistent gap in graduation rates between African-American and white student-athletes? As stated above in the discussion of segregated schools, the problem stems at least in part from the comparatively poorer education available in urban and rural schools. While he was Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan consistently addressed this not only for high school and middle school student-athletes but for all students trapped in inferior schools. Now as the head of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Duncan said "We have to hold our institutions of higher education to a higher standard, and we also have to improve the education being provided by public schools, especially those in urban areas."

But at the college level, our admissions offices need to only admit student-athletes who have a chance to succeed. That is not always true now. If they are academically below the levels of other students being admitted, then we have to provide additional academic support to assure their chances for academic success.

I think it is clearly time for the NCAA to raise the standard and motivate the member schools to continue "the pursuit of excellence in academics."

I think it is also time to motivate member schools to focus on the graduation rates of student-athletes of color. Of the 78 teams invited to a bowl, 10 schools would have failed to meet a 60 percent GSR of African-American football student-athletes. The NCAA should levy sanctions for any school that fails to meet a minimum GSR equal to the equivalent of at least a 60 percent graduation rate for student-athletes, with the intent to finally eliminate the gap within five years.

Reverend Jesse Jackson, Founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, told me, "I have been sharing with young people around the country that it takes the same discipline to win as a student as it does in sports. In fact, our Rainbow Push Sports Program and PUSH Excel for Excellence emphasize that the 'student-athlete' must always be a student first, spending as much time with a book as they do with a ball. As a former student-athlete myself, I can appreciate the excitement of being on a 'bowl-bound' team. But for the majority of these young stars the College Bowl season will be the pinnacle of their athletic success, as less than 2 percent will ever make it to the professional level.

Dr. Richard Lapchick's report this year shows an increase in overall graduation rates for the bowl participants, but a significant gap still exists between white and African-American student-athletes. These young men sacrifice their bodies to bring victories to the school, and the schools should in turn invest back into them to make sure they are victorious in completing their college degree. So as we extend our congratulations to each of the 78 bowl-bound colleges, we also encourage them to emphasize and prioritize the overall goal of building champions on and off the field!

And if there was ever a tie at the end of bowl game, wouldn't it be incredible if the one with the highest grade wins!"

TIDES recently reported on the lack of football head coaches of color in our D1 Leadership Study. Only 11.5 percent of our FBS head coaches and 34 percent of our assistant coaches are African-American while 54 percent of FBS football student-athletes were African-American.

Might they perform better in class with a coach who looked like them? Here is look at the teams coached by African-Americans in the bowl games.

The average GSR for all bowl-bound teams is 79 percent. Bowl-bound teams coached by an African-American head coach have an average GSR of 86 percent! Equally noteworthy, the combined graduation rate for African-American FBS student-athletes with an African-American head coach is 81 percent vs. the 79 percent average for the bowl-bound teams. There are so few African-American coaches that the results may be limited in value, but we should continue to monitor any effect of the academic development of student-athletes who have a coach that looks like them.

As with all aspects of the argument for diversity starting with the justice and moral perspective, diversity is also good for the business of academics and athletics.

David Zimmerman made significant contributions 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 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.