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  • Richard LapchickContributing Writer, ESPN.com Close
    • American leader of the sports boycott of South Africa from 1975 until the end of apartheid
    • Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida
    • Author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card
    • Directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport
    • Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport

After years of increases for black male student-athletes in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, there were three noteworthy reversals of those trends this year.

On Tuesday, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its "Keeping Score When It Counts: Graduation Success and Academic Progress Rates for the 2017 NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Basketball Tournament Teams." The annual report contains the student-athlete graduation success rate (GSR) and academic progress rate (APR) for the 68 men's tournament teams and 64 women's teams.

Women's tournament teams continue to graduate their players at a greater rate than the men's teams competing in the NCAA tournament. While the gap between female black and white basketball student-athletes continued to decrease in 2017, the gap between black and white male basketball student-athletes increased for the first time since 2011.

The overall GSR for women's tournament teams is 90 percent, a slight increase from 89 percent in 2016. The GSR for men's tournament teams is 76 percent, a decrease of two percentage points. All 64 of the women's teams have at least a 50 percent GSR, and 63 of the 68 men's teams met this 50 percent GSR benchmark. Also, there was no team in the women's field that fell below NCAA's minimum APR. On the men's side, the University of New Orleans fell under that minimum 930 score.

A major area of emphasis in our study is the disparity in the GSR of black and white basketball student-athletes. The gap between male black and white basketball student-athletes rose from 18 to 19 percentage points over the past year. Not only was this the first increase in the gap since 2011, the average GSR for black male basketball student-athletes dropped for the first time since we began these reports in 2003. The average GSR for black male basketball student-athletes decreased from 75 to 74 percent in 2017, while the average GSR of white male basketball student-athletes remained at 93 percent.

On the other hand, the gap between female black and white basketball student-athletes continued to decrease, from 10 to nine percentage points in 2017. The average GSR for black and white female basketball student-athletes both increased in 2017, rising from 85 to 87 percent and from 95 to 96 percent, respectively.

The gap between black and white student-athletes on men's teams compared to the gap on women's teams presents another troubling trend. Last year, the racial gap between men's and women's tournament teams was at eight percentage points while this year's study reveals a 10 percentage point gap. This is the third significant positive-trend breaker, as it marks the first increase in the racial gap between men's and women's tournament teams since the 2011 report.

I am encouraged by the smaller racial gap among women's tournament teams, which proves that achieving these rates is possible. I hope men's teams will strive to reduce this disparity for their student-athletes so that the racial gap between men's and women's tournament teams will decrease.

One area of success for the men's tournament teams was the increase in the number of teams with 100 percent GSRs. This year the men's bracket had 11 teams with 100 percent GSR, up from 10 in 2016, while the women's bracket had 23 teams with 100 percent, the same as the 2016 report.

Only two of the women's teams graduated less than 60 percent of their student-athletes, compared to the men's tournament with 15 teams below 60 percent. Furthermore, it is still not acceptable that in 2017, five percent of the women's tournament teams and 22 percent of the men's teams had a gap of 30 percentage points or greater between the graduation rates of white and black basketball student-athletes on their teams.

This study also examines the APR of tournament teams and I was encouraged to see there were 11 (up from four in 2016) teams within the women's basketball tournament field and seven (up from four in 2016) in the men's field that scored a perfect APR score of 1,000.

In 2004, the NCAA introduced the APR as part of an academic reform package designed to more accurately measure student-athletes' academic success as well as improve graduation rates at member institutions. The APR holds each team accountable for the success of student-athletes in the classroom and their progress toward graduation. Individual teams are penalized if they fall below an APR score of 930, which is an expected graduation rate of 50 percent of its student-athletes. Schools falling below that can lose scholarships and/or become ineligible for postseason play.

As I mentioned in my column on the graduation rates of bowl-bound college football teams, it is time to raise the bar to the equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate. While that may have been hard to imagine in 2004, in the last two years only two schools (University of New Orleans this year and Southern University last year) have been below the 930 APR standard, and only 13 have been below it in the last four years combined.

Athletes and teams are prepared to compete at the next level. We need to institute that now. If we raised the APR to the equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate this year, 62 of the 64 (97 percent) women's tournament teams and 53 of the 68 (78 percent) men's tournament teams would be at 60 percent or higher. In fact, 60 of the 64 (94 percent) women's tournament teams and 47 of the 68 (69 percent) men's tournament teams would be at 70 percent GSR or higher.

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told me, "Overall it's encouraging to see grad rates continue to climb. It's a great lesson that when you actually raise the bar, people respond. It's a good time to consider raising the bar again. The discouraging news here is the increasing disparity in black/white grad rates. We must demand those colleges contributing to that divide change their behavior."

In the December column on football graduation rates, we took a first look at what the effect of having an black head coach might have on the academic progress of black (and white) student-athletes.

Only 10 percent of FBS head coaches are coaches of color. Nearly 54 percent of FBS football student-athletes were black (53.8 percent). Might they perform better in class with a coach who looked like them? We looked at the teams coached by blacks in the bowl games and the overall GSR average was 75 percent. Teams coached by an black head coach had an average GSR of 84 percent. Equally noteworthy, the combined graduation rate for the black head coaches for black student-athletes was 71 percent versus the 68 percent average for the bowl-bound teams.

There are nine (16 percent) black head coaches in the men's tournament and 10 (16 percent) in the women's tournament. By comparison, 54.8 percent of the Division I men's basketball student-athletes are black and 26.8 percent are white, and 45.4 percent of the Division I women's basketball student-athletes are black and 34.8 percent are white.

Men's teams coached by black head coaches had a slightly higher APR (973 versus 971). On the women's side, teams coached by white head coaches had a slight edge in APR (985 versus 978). The gap between the GSR of black and white student-athletes on teams coached by blacks was 13 percent compared to the overall 19 percent gap.

As with the fall football stats, these are some encouraging but very preliminary results indicating positive academic results for black student-athletes coached by black head coaches.

History shows that women's basketball student-athletes will continue to succeed and I hope that the men will resume getting better. There are too many futures at stake for these student-athletes when the final buzzer sounds. We need to raise the academic bar now and hire more coaches who look like the student-athletes they coach to help assure that success.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual racial and gender report card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.

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