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Derrick Z. Jackson

Foul play on black athletes' graduation rates

By Derrick Z. Jackson
March 17, 2009
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BACK IN the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament this year after just missing the title last year, Memphis coach John Calipari said, "We don't feel we have anything to prove because we're a different team." One thing is not different. Memphis should not be in the tournament at all, with a 44 percent graduation success rate for its African-American basketball players.

University of Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun recently blew up on camera, telling a political activist freelance journalist to "shut up" when the journalist goaded him on his $1.6 million salary. Governor Jodi Rell called it an "embarrassing display." The chairwomen of the Connecticut Legislature's higher education committee wrote a letter saying Calhoun's behavior was "unacceptable" as "a role model for many athletes and students."

We will know the world is truly changing when politicians write letters and make statements that embarrassing graduation rates for their flagship university basketball team are unacceptable. UConn also should not be in the tournament with a graduation rate of 22 percent for its African-American players and only 33 percent for the whole team.

Missouri made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003, "leaving far behind," according to the Associated Press, "the days of NCAA violations, off-the-court incidents and empty post-seasons that had spoiled recent seasons." Missouri coach Mike Anderson said, "We have been a team that's been focused on the things we can control, and that's the games . . . We have been pretty consistent all year long. Even in the defeats we have had, I think we've responded in a positive way."

It would be better if Missouri controlled the game in the classroom. Missouri should not be in the tournament either, with a 25 percent graduation rate for black players and only 36 percent overall.

This continues to be the maddening part of March Madness, the part that keeps muddying up the very good news that has evolved over the last decade. In my 1999 comparisons of the graduation rates of the basketball teams in the NCAA Division I tournament, 41 of the 64 teams had a team graduation rate below 50 percent, the standard the Knight Commission on athletic reform recommended for a team to be eligible for post-season play.

In the 2009 tournament, 41 of the 65 teams are at 50 percent or higher. In the last six years, the graduation average of the entire field has grown from 42 percent to 61 percent. The graduation average for African-American players has grown from 43 percent to 53 percent. That improvement has dramatically percolated to some of the best teams in the country.

Ten years ago, the top 16 seeded men's teams had an average graduation rate of 44 percent. This year, it is 64 percent. So statistically, all you critics out there of college athletic abuses, it is a moment to celebrate. North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Duke, Villanova, Xavier, and Wake Forest, a mixture of public and private universities and a blend of urban and college-town campuses, show that athletes can score three pointers and get a few 3.0s. The graduation rate for African-American players at those schools range from 70 percent to 100 percent.

The problem is that the statistics remain one of feast or famine, or rather, diploma or defacto dropout. It remains particularly true for African-American players. On paper, the top 16 seeds have an average graduation rate of 53 percent for black players. But eight of those 16 are so bad, their average graduation rate for black players is 32 percent. Those teams include five of the top eight seeds: UConn, Louisville, Oklahoma, Michigan State, and Memphis.

Such schools, one can optimistically say, are becoming isolated by the general improvement of many of their peers. For example, Temple and Syracuse made the tournament 10 years ago, graduating zero percent of black players. Purdue got in, graduating 11 percent of black players. All three schools made this year's tournament, now graduating a respective 57, 50 and 83 percent of black players.

UConn, conversely, is frozen in a con game, its 22 percent graduation rate for black players barely different from 17 percent in 1999. Governor Rell should also call that an "embarrassing display."

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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