They fly through the air with the greatest of ease. They stop, pop, and pirouette above the rim, or they let fly sweet jumpers that turn out to be buzzer beaters. I can only be describing the marvelous athleticism on display during “March Madness.”
If you’ve been reading this column for any amount of time, you know I’m conflicted when the “Big Dance” rolls around. Many of the athletes who cause gymnasium and television audiences to gasp will never walk across a stage to receive the diplomas they went to school to earn.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a heart stopping comment (at least for the coaches whose careers teeter on whether their teams make it into the tournament or not) when he said teams that don’t graduate at least 50 percent of their players shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the dance.
The NCAA uses a system called Academic Progress Rate. If a team doesn’t get a APR of at least 925, it’s not graduating 50 percent of its players. This year 10 teams in the tournament would have missed the dance due to scores below 925.
Duncan told the Associated Press, “I want to be clear. The vast majority of schools do extraordinarily well. And the vast majority of athletes have this life-transforming opportunity. But we have a small percentage of programs -- 5 percent, 10 percent -- that choose to do it the wrong way year after year after year and I don’t know why we tolerate that ...”
“I’m looking for some leadership. I’m looking for some courage. I’m looking for the idea of student-athletes being reality, not a myth. I see no reason why the NCAA can’t solve this.”
Jim Boeheim, coach of Syracuse, one of the 10 teams below 925, wasn’t happy with Duncan’s comments. According to USA Today, he called Duncan’s proposal to keep under performing teams out of the tournament “completely nuts.”
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida that keeps track of such data, has noted that schools are getting better. In 2008, 54 percent of the teams in the tournament were below 925. In 2009, that statistic dropped to 32 percent and in 2010, 15.6 percent. That stake of progress has to be taken with caution. Different teams rotate within the field of 64 each year.
How did teams of note score for this year’s tourney? According to TIDES, Belmont, Notre Dame, Villanova, Wofford, Illinois, BYU, Utah State, Xavier, Vanderbilt and Arkansas-Little Rock, had Graduation Success Rates better than 92 percent. Belmont, Notre Dame, Villanova, Wofford, Illinois, BYU and Utah State, graduated all of their basketball student athletes.
On the other end of the spectrum, Georgia, Akron and UConn graduated fewer than 40 percent of its basketball players. UConn is woeful at 31 percent.
There is a lot of money at stake in the NCAA tournament, and I’m not just talking about the $10 billion contract networks pay for the privilege of carrying the games. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics found that between 2006 and 2010, 43.7 percent of the $409.3 million paid out to conferences for dance participation went to teams with an APR less than 925. Leading the list is the SEC with 73.7 percent of its teams not graduating at least 50 percent of its players. Still, those academically low performing teams took home $30 million over that four year period.
But here is the greater shame. High school graduates, over their lifetimes, earn on average, $1 million less than their college graduate cousins.
So while the spotlight shines for a short time on players who make it to the dance -- their schools get a big paycheck and coaches keep their jobs -- some athletes will only have fond memories.
That “One Shining Moment” was just that, a moment.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Charles E. Richardson is The Macon Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.