NCAA Under Scrutiny For Graduation Rates As college basketball's "March Madness" gets under way, players' academic performance has come under focus. A new report shows that 10 of the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament are not on track to graduate half of their players. In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said if schools fail to graduate at least half of their players, they should not compete in the post-season. Host Michel Martin discusses the issue with the study's author, Richard Lapchick, and The Nation magazine sports writer, David Zirin.

NCAA Under Scrutiny For Graduation Rates

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today, we're going to dig into some of the thornier questions in higher education in this country. Later we'll ask, do white men need college scholarships just for them? A white male college student thinks so and has tried to create one.

We'll talk to him and we'll talk to an expert on college finance who has actually researched the question to find out who really gets the most scholarship money and why. That conversation is coming up later in the program.

But, first, are student athletes really getting the college education they are promised in exchange for their skills on the playing fields, and most especially, the basketball courts. This is a time of year when college hoops fans are in their glory. It's March Madness, the NCAA tournament. And for the third straight year, President Obama filled out his NCAA tournament picks on ESPN.

Unidentified man: We actually have the same national championship game.

President BARACK OBAMA: There you go.

Unidentified man: Ohio State versus Kansas.

President BARACK OBAMA: And I'm thinking Kansas just because I think they're deeper.

MARTIN: This year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan isn't asking who's going to win, he's asking whether these student athletes are getting something out of the deal, mainly a college degree. In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, he says if schools fail to graduate at least half of their players, they should not compete in the post season.

This comes on the heels of a new report that finds that 10 of the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament are not on track to graduate at least half of their players. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Richard Lapchick. He authored the annual study that Secretary Duncan cited in The Washington Post op-ed. It's part of a series of reports called "Keeping Score When It Counts." He's the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. He's on the line with us from his office at UCF in Orlando. Mr. Lapchick, thanks so much for joining us.

Professor RICHARD LAPCHICK (Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, University of Central Florida): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is Dave Zirin. He's author of the book "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love." He's a frequent contributor to this program and he's also a sports editor for The Nation magazine, and he's with us in our studios in Washington. Thank you for joining us as well.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Author, "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love"): Great to be on NPR.

MARTIN: So, Richard Lapchick, let's begin with you because you've been in conversation with the secretary of Education about this. On the one hand you find that there actually has been improvement in the academic success rate of athletes overall, but there's still a wide difference between the graduation rates of white players and black players.

For example, Syracuse and Kansas State are among the 10 schools that will not graduate at least half of their team. And I also read in your study that, for example, in Kansas State, 100 percent of white players graduated, but just 14 percent of black players did.

Prof. LAPCHICK: Yes. It's been for me the most pressing problem with the study of graduation rates or academic progress rates is that while there has been a significant improvement in the percentages of both whites and African-Americans graduating, the gap between the two has gone from a much smaller amount to - in 2006, the gap was 23 percent. This year it's 32 percent, as you mentioned.

And it's astonishing to me that in 2011 we can't find a better way to address that issue. I think part of the problem and one of the reasons Secretary of Education Duncan wants to be in on this, is I think it's the first time we've had a secretary of Education in a long time who comes from an urban area, has a sports background and understands that a whole lot of the students who are playing college basketball today come from those urban school systems, which are generally under funded, under resourced and sometimes lack the best teachers.

MARTIN: We will link to the studies so that people can read it for themselves. We'll also link to the secretary's op-ed so people can read that for themselves. You can go to, click on the programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. But people who have not read the study will probably ask, what about people like John Wall and Evan Turner? They are two top draft picks for the NBA. They didn't finish college because they went to the pros. That was clearly their intention. Do those kinds of players count against a school's academic standing?

Prof. LAPCHICK: When a player leaves in good academic standing, they do not count one way or the other.

MARTIN: And the final question before we bring Dave Zirin into the conversation with you is, is basketball distinct in this? Does the same problem exist in swimming, in football, in, you know, other college sports?

Prof. LAPCHICK: The only sport that's close and that does a little bit better, but still has this persistent gap is the sport of football.

MARTIN: OK. Dave Zirin, what is your response to Secretary Duncan's proposal that if a college doesn't graduate at least 50 percent of the players, you can't play in post season? And what's your response to the findings overall?

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. Well, first of all, I don't like Arne Duncan's op-ed, which I read. I don't like it at all because I think what it does is it penalizes the players for basically doing what they have been told to do from the moment they step on to these factories, and that's what a lot of them are.

When you talk about basketball and football, it's not coincidence that those are the two sports that do the worst job in graduating players because those are the two revenue-producing sports. Those are the two sports where as soon as you go on campus, a message is sent to you right away. As one former player said to me, a former all-American said, we are not student athletes, we are athlete students. Because as soon as we walk onto campus, we are told what is our job on this campus.

And I love Professor Lapchick's study. I think - I read it every year - I think it's indispensable, but it's a tool - and you can use a tool to do all kinds of things. And I think what Arne Duncan is doing is using the tool to go after the money and go after the kids, which is what he thinks is the most effective way to do it.

I think it would be so much more effective to look at Professor Lapchick's study and say, well, wait a minute, if you're a public institution getting public money, maybe we should lessen the amount of practice hours that players for football and basketball have to do so they have more time to go in the classroom. Maybe we should stop this terrible system that says scholarships are renewed on an annual basis, athletic scholarships.

So think about pressure that puts on kids to actually perform on the athletic field for thinking that, well, they're not going to be able to go back to school the next year. And then the last issue, which Arne Duncan, when he talks about all this money that gets generated by schools that don't graduate players, to me the elephant in the room that he's not talking about is, why aren't we paying these players?

I mean, the television contract alone for the NCAA tournament is in the billions of dollars. Shouldn't they get some kind of stipend? And wouldn't that also help address some of these problems and lessen some of the pressure that players, particularly ones from very impoverished socioeconomic backgrounds face on a year-in year-out basis.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a new report and an op-ed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that talks about graduation rates among the men's basketball teams in the NCAA tournament. Mr. Duncan's op-ed suggests that teams that don't graduate at least 50 percent of their players should not be permitted to participate in post-season play.

We're speaking with Richard Lapchick, author of the annual study that tracks graduation rates among men's basketball teams and teams in general. Also with us is Dave Zirin, who writes about politics and sports for The Nation magazine.

Can I just press you, Mr. Lapchick, on your perspective on why men's basketball has this particular issue? And you also point out that the women's teams have much higher graduation rates at the same institutions. Why is that?

Prof. LAPCHICK: Much higher graduation rates and a much smaller gap between the graduation rates of African-American and white female student athletes. I think the women had a different foundation and perspective for a long time. Until several years ago, they didn't have an option to play professional ball. So when they went to colleges, the tradition was to emphasize the academics.

And I just want to make one other comment, though, before we move to another subject, if we are. And that is, if the graduation rate this year, on average, is 66 percent, and we're only asking for 50 percent graduation rate for all these sanctions, for me, I would rather have that percentage that the bar is at 60 percent, because we're already above that on average. Making it 50 percent is almost undervaluing the education process because everybody's already far past that.

MARTIN: And, again, why the racial disparity, Mr. Lapchick? Why is it that there's such a vast difference between what's happening with the black students and what's happening with the white students - the black male students and the white male students who are playing the same sport in the same institution?

Prof. LAPCHICK: Well, I think several things are at play. I think that, you know, having been on the university campus for most of my adult life and been on - speaking on lots of other ones, I don't think most of our prominently white campuses are welcoming places for students of color. I think that, you know, they are obviously disproportionately under-represented on campus. They don't see themselves being represented on the faculties. If they look at the street names and on names of all the buildings, unless there's an odd Martin Luther King center or Malcolm X center, everything is named after somebody who was white who made a donation to the school.

It's really only on the basketball court where they find a kind of group of people who look like them. And a lot of times, that results in that - not only lack of studying or desire to study, but an alienation from the school. So many people - we have a program that brings back athletes whose eligibility had expired before they got their degree. And when first approached, a lot of the athletes told us that they've had a bitter relationship and feelings about their school, and it was really hard to get - initially, at least - them to consider going back to school, even though it was going to be paid for because they felt that they had been used by the university.

MARTIN: Dave Zirin, a final thought from you. And I'm also interested in your thoughts about what would address this problem, but I'm also interested in -since you cover not just basketball, you cover many different sports, whether there is any discussion about this within the sports world, whether people within this - you know, Mr. Lapchick comes from the world of academia. Secretary Duncan comes from a world of education - whether within the world of the sports, is this perceived as a problem?

Mr. ZIRIN: No. In the sports world, it's incredibly mercenary. I mean, look at the quote from Gary Williams, the coach of the University of Maryland a year ago, where he just said: I don't care about the graduation rates, because look at the number of players I have who are playing in Europe. And I'm like any kind of professor preparing my kids for a future career, and that's pro ball.

Yeah, I think that's a very problematic analysis of the situation because, of course, pro careers can be done an instance. And then, say, you're done with an injury when you're in your mid-20s, what are you then going to do for the rest of your life?

But it's very mercenary. It's very focused on the pros, and I don't see how you get around the fact, for example, that Gary Williams - to use that as one example - is the highest-paid employee on that campus. And at most, public institutions - either the head football coach or the head basketball coach - is the most powerful person on the campus.

And so much of the campus becomes addicted to this cash that comes in when you have a successful team, that this is one of the things that the Knight Commission has wrestled with a great deal. Because it's, like, what do we do about the fact that when the team is bad, we lose money, but when it's great, we're flush? Then everybody becomes addicted to this idea, this paradigm that says if the sports teams are good, then we're all gong to be good. It really messes things up.

And I've just got to say, people from other countries look at the way we operate in terms of our football and our basketball minor leagues being our colleges, and they think we're absolutely insane the way this is set up. And I think that's another thing that I would love to hear Arne Duncan address, is why doesn't the NBA and the NFL invest in real minor leagues, so kids who just want to play sports have that option?

MARTIN: Dave Zirin writes about politics and sports for The Nation magazine. He's a frequent contributor to this program, the Barbershop segment. And he's the author of the book, "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love." He was here with us in our NPR studios in Washington, D.C.

Richard Lapchick is the author of the annual study "Keeping Score When It Counts" that measures graduation rates among college sports teams, both men and women's teams. He's also the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, and he joined us from his office in Orlando. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Prof. LAPCHICK: Thank you.

Mr. ZIRIN: Thank you.

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