Bowl-bound student-athletes achieve academic success, but the racial gap remains

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In December, 78 NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams are selected to play in one of 39 bowl games. It is a chance for many student-athletes to showcase their talents and compete at the highest level in the national spotlight.

But for many, their football careers end at bowl games. Less than 2% of the student-athletes who are eligible for the draft will actually make it to the NFL. For those who are able to forge pro careers, the chances of playing more than four years are slim because of the short average span of an NFL career. As a result, it is crucial that FBS institutions equip their student-athletes with a high-quality education and the tools to be successful once their time on the playing field ends.

"I was blessed to be a student-athlete. I went to college on an athletic scholarship. I know the benefits of doors being opened because of the God-given skills to perform on a field at a high level. But like many students, a professional career in sports was not in the cards for me. Yet, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to have an education which could then open the doors for my future," said Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

"That needs to be a priority and focus for the NCAA, even amidst the excitement of another college bowl season. The entire country will watch and appreciate the athletic excellence of these wonderful student-athletes. Their futures are at stake, so we need to ensure that each of them can win in the winter, and then walk across the stage and graduate in the spring."

Monday, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its annual "Keeping Score When It Counts: Assessing the Academic Records of the 2019-2020 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 GSR for bowl-bound teams remained at 79%, the same as in 2018. However, there was an improvement in GSR for African-American student-athletes to 73.8% from 73% last year, and the substantial gap between the graduation rates for white and African-American student-athletes decreased slightly from 17% in 2018 to 15.6% in 2019.

These rates have consistently risen since the 1998 introduction of GSR. In fact, they have been improving for all football student-athletes. Every bowl-eligible team this year had at least a 50% GSR.

In 2003, 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. Just like last year, individual teams are penalized if they fall below an APR score of 930, which is an expected graduation rate of 50% of its student-athletes. The last time a bowl-eligible team did not meet the minimum APR requirement was in 2016.

All of the 2019 bowl-bound schools had an APR of the minimum 930 or higher, continuing the positive trend from last year. The average APR for these schools increased by one to 971 in 2019. The top four ranked teams, who will compete in this year's College Football Playoff, Louisiana State University, Ohio State University, Clemson University and the University of Oklahoma, have APRs of 951, 987, 992 and 966, respectively. Clemson and Ohio State led the pack as each had an APR ranking in the top 10 of the 78 bowl-bound schools. However, LSU and Oklahoma did not have as much academic success, with each school's APR falling below the bowl-bound average.

Despite all of the playoff teams ranking above the minimum APR, according to the 2019 TIDES report, each of the College Football Playoff schools had a gap between graduation rates of white and African-American student-athletes exceeding 25%. While white student-athletes graduated at rates ranging from 83% to 100% at these four schools, African-American students' graduation rates ranged from 63% to 81%. The substantial graduation rate gaps at these schools is disturbing.

APR and GSR rates for FBS bowl-bound teams have shown consistent improvement throughout the history of this report and the gap in graduation rates between white and African-American football student-athletes has tended to decrease slightly each year. However, this gap increased to 17% in 2018. Fortunately, this was reversed as the gap was lessened to 15.6% in 2019. Despite the steady improvement, the slow progress continues to be frustrating.

In 1954, the U.S. 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. Continuing residential segregation in many cities has inhibited that progress. Schools in areas that are predominantly African-American are often underfunded, underequipped and understaffed.

All of this contributes to the 15.6% gap in graduation rates between white and African-American football student-athletes.

Six 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. This is a decrease from eight such schools recorded in 2018. Three schools -- Louisiana Tech, Kent State and Oklahoma -- have gaps of 46%, 45% and 40%, respectively. These gaps are unacceptable.

How do we tackle the persistent gap in graduation rates between African-American and white football student-athletes? The problem not only comes from the lack of educational resources available in underfunded school districts at the elementary and high school levels, but the apparent lack of urgency paid to areas of academic achievement.

While he was secretary of education from 2009 to 2015, 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."

Additionally, I have continued to argue that the minimum APR requirement should be raised to predict a 60% GSR standard. In 2019, one team failed to reach a 60% GSR and 11 teams failed to reach an APR of 960. This is an increase from the six schools that failed to reach an APR of 960 in 2018. Also, 68 of the 78 bowl-bound teams were able to graduate at least 70% of their student-athletes. This is one more percent than in 2018.

And let's not forget about the incentives for winning bowl games and the College Football Playoff. Bowl game payouts can total amounts in the seven-figure range. The College Football Playoff even has a revenue distribution system set in place. There is an incentive for conferences in the form of a six-figure amount for each institution in their conference that meets the NCAA's APR measure for participation in a postseason game. These funds usually increase the school's opportunity to develop the student-athlete experience from the athletics perspective. There should be requirements in place to hold NCAA member schools accountable to emphasize just as much development in the academic space as well.

Moving forward, the NCAA will have even more pressure to emphasize academics, with amateurism rules shifting and student-athletes getting paid for the use of their names, images and more.

"As the NCAA turns its attention to revamping amateurism rules and opening opportunities for student-athletes to receive compensation for commercial use of their names, images and likeness, it is important to recognize the potential added distraction these commercial commitments may bring," Delise O'Meally, executive director of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, said. "As such, the NCAA and its member institutions must begin now to increase and enhance the support needed to continue to ensure overall academic success. This is, after all, the end game."

Early in 2020, right before the annual NCAA convention, the NCAA Academic and Membership Affairs staff will host the first Academic-Athletic Summit in Anaheim, California. This event will host university presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and provosts nominated by each of the Division I conferences. At this summit, topics will include metrics that measure academic success, predicting student-athlete retention and student engagement. I challenge these academic and athletic leaders to consider raising the APR standard and to continue to push our student-athletes toward attaining off-the-field success.

The NCAA and its member institutions have an opportunity in 2020 to improve the focus on academic development. Now, more than ever, we need a sense of urgency to better prepare these student-athletes for academic success and support so they can leave these institutions equipped to be successful in life and in their professions.

David Morrin and Nicholas Mutebi 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.