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Derrick Z. Jackson

Put Obama in the game

Abysmal 2010 graduation rates for black men drag down the NCAA

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / March 20, 2011

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WITH HIS love of basketball and education, President Obama should turn his March Madness brackets into a bully pulpit. He may be the last person who can shame a sport corrupted on the men’s side with abysmal graduation rates.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Harvard basketball player, has said for months that universities that fail to graduate at least half their players should be banned from tournaments, echoing the Knight Commission on reform. The blowback has been breathtaking.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose team would be disqualified, told USA Today that Duncan’s proposal was “completely nuts.’’ Even more brazen was Bruce Pearl, who last year lectured back at Duncan, “I don’t mind reminding the secretary that . . . if you want to fix it, fix it at the high school level.’’ Meanwhile, Pearl’s coaching tenure at Tennessee is collapsing in scandal, and the black graduation rates have been between 11 percent and 38 percent the last six years (Pat Summitt’s great Lady Vols have been a perfect 100 percent in the same span).

I doubt Boeheim and Pearl would so address the president of the United States, and Obama should no longer allow such basketball brats to hold the ball. A powerful way to stop the whining would be for him to release next year’s brackets at Notre Dame. The school made both this year’s men’s and women’s tournaments with 100 percent black graduation rates.

“Hello Fighting Irish!’’ Obama could say to Notre Dame. “It is my great honor to congratulate you for your achievements on and off the court. The Notre Dame women are part of one of the most phenomenal stories of American education. Of the 32 top-seeded women’s teams, nine of every 10 players, black as well as white, graduate.

“I wish I could say the nation’s men’s teams are part of the same story, but I cannot. While nine of every 10 white players graduate on the top-32-seeded men’s teams, only five of every 10 black players graduate. As an African American, I am personally outraged that 21 of the 68 men’s teams have black player graduation rates ranging from 44 percent down to zero.

“Thus, beginning today, I will do my bracket with this new stipulation: I will not write in your team if either your team or black player graduation rate is under 50 percent.

“This decision is not an easy one to make for a basketball purist. It leaves out nearly a third of the teams, including prestigious programs that account for 10 of the last 21 titles. It is with regret that I will leave blank spots for Syracuse, Indiana State, Missouri, Southern Cal, Michigan State, Tennessee, Florida, Nevada-Las Vegas, UC-Santa Barbara, Michigan, Morehead State, Kentucky, Georgia, Temple, Connecticut, Alabama-Birmingham, Texas, Washington, Arizona, Kansas State, and Akron.

“I know this will not be popular on those campuses, and it might even lose me a few votes. But it can no longer be business as usual that the vast majority of those teams have been under 50 percent for black players for many years running.

“There are too many good schools like yours that put the lie to coaches who make excuses, schools like Vanderbilt, Brigham Young, Duke, North Carolina, Xavier, Georgetown, and San Diego State. You know, I visited Boston — and by the way, congratulations, Boston University, for your men’s 90 percent graduation rate — where I said we have a moral and economic imperative to give every child the chance to succeed.

“The same goes for March Madness. Its enjoyment and economic success can no longer come at the moral expense of graduation rates. One coach calls my education secretary nuts for wanting change. Well, here is change you can believe in. If you want to play ball on my brackets, graduate your players.

“From this day forward, no champion with poor graduation rates will be invited to the White House. I will invite the next best team with acceptable rates. I have told the nation that we should cheer the winners of science fairs like Super Bowl athletes. My new brackets are part of this mission. Bless you Notre Dame, and the women’s game in general, for basketball and academics that are a March masterpiece. Thank you.’’

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