Good Basketball & Bad Grades? Then Punish The Coaches

Of the Sweet 16 schools, three are in danger of losing scholarships. They are not accused of paying their players or taking their tests for them. Instead, Purdue, Ohio State and Tennessee face scholarship reductions because their basketball players are not making grades.

The University of Central Florida's Richard Lapchick has been studying the relationships between education, race and sports for decades. Every year, he releases an annual report detailing how well the NCAA Tournament schools have done in educating and graduating their players. In the cases of the Boilermakers, Buckeyes and Volunteers, their Academic Progress Rate (APR) has fallen below the NCAA standard. This means that not only do their basketball players fail to graduate at the rate of their peers, they also leave school in poor academic standing. 

The NCAA requires schools to have an APR of 925, which means they graduate about 60% of their athletes. It is possible to get below 925 and graduate 60%, however. Such is the case with Purdue (64% graduation rate, 900 APR) and Ohio State (60%, 911 APR), which means they have students who have failed academically and left school early. The opposite is true of Tennessee, which has an APR of 924, but only graduates 30% of their basketball players (0% of black basketball players, as well). [By the way, UF has an APR of 950 and graduates 60% of basketball players.]

The challenge is now for the NCAA to add teeth to their penalties for schools that do a poor job of educating their students. Critics will say that college is supposed to prepare you for the real world. So, if a point guard comes to college, barely stays academically eligible, and leaves for the NBA after one season, the college did a good job. It is also not fair to punish the guys who remain in school for the sins of players who have gone before them.

The counter comes in that colleges are so focused on winning, they forget that not every basketball player will play in the pros. If the university does not provide them with a top-class education, or treats them like a triple-A basketball team, that player misses out on the opportunity for a college degree and the financial benefits that come with it. 

The study covers 1999-2009, in order to give a fair assessment of each program and to compensate for early departures and transfers. In that time, white basketball players graduated at a rate of 84%, compared to 56% for black players. However, black players graduate at a higher rate than black students (56%-38%). You can make the case that this proves athletic departments are doing a good job of educating their players.

Lapchick's study has one major flaw in that he does not consider what the athletes are graduating in. We have all seen the huge number of college athletes with "Sociology" "Independent Study" or "Recreational Planning" as majors. While nothing is wrong with studying those fields, most undergrads will pursue a masters or double major. Athletes do not do that because they are taking the easiest courses and majors to stay academically eligible. The joke that a former college athlete is "selling cars" often is not a joke. Instead of leaving college with an intellectual background or skill, college athletes only have their athletic careers. 

There is no simple solution to this problem. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (a former Harvard basketball player) suggested banning schools that do not graduate 40% of their players. That won't happen because good programs have too many players that leave early. You cannot base it on racial graduation rates either because of the different numbers of white and black players (seven of the 65 tournament schools had no white players graduate in the study's time period).

The NCAA could leave it up to the individual conferences, but that only increases the likelihood of making the major conferences a Minor League worried about making money or winning games than grades. If the NCAA really wants to make a difference, they need to punish the coaches who allow their programs to fall into an academic ditch.

Maryland has an APR of 912 and a graduation rate of 8%, the lowest in the field of 65. Coach Gary Williams defends his program by saying they have graduated 10 of their last 12 seniors and will graduate four seniors this season. But Williams cannot explain how their APR is below the threshold of 925. He also fails to realize that he has a responsibility to educate all of his players, not just the ones who stay four seasons. (The low APR supports the idea that players who leave early are not in good academic standing. This could mean players leaving as soon as basketball season ends.)

As I said earlier, if students do become successful pros, they still have to live a regular life after that. If they don't have a degree, or enough schoolwork to function like an educated adult, Williams must share some of that blame. If the NCAA were to fine or suspend coaches for their player's grades, you would see a lot of coaches suddenly worried about little Johnny in ENC1101. Coaches are the ones who make the money, they should also be the ones dealing with the responsibility of making sure their players make grades.

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