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NCAA hoops teams don't make grade

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2004

If your kids brought home the same lousy report cards that two-thirds of the 65 teams in the NCAA men's tournament did, they'd be grounded for months. Instead, the teams are all going to get new sneakers and fistfuls of cash.

Now you know why some of the people who watch college sports are always mad in March. It has nothing to do with basketball and everything to do stop us if you've heard this before with money. Those same people figure that if CBS is paying $6 billion over 11 years to the NCAA, the schools sharing that loot should be graduating most of the kids who play for them.

Talk about a radical idea if it ever catches on, many in the current crop of student-athletes would become as extinct as dodos. But pretend, for the moment, anyway, that the watchdogs were keeping score.

First the good news: Stanford would score 100, Lehigh 90, Dayton 82, and Kansas 73. Five other schools, including those perennial bookworms at Duke and Vanderbilt, would register in the 60s.

Now the bad: Four other so-called institutions of higher learning in the field would have a big, fat zero alongside their names. That's even harder to accomplish than it sounds.

The marking period in the NCAA's latest graduation rate report covered scholarship athletes who entered school between 1993-96, allowing each six years to graduate. With that much time, you'd think at least one phys ed major in one of those places would have stumbled through the degree maze by sheer luck. Then again, maybe there aren't as many of Jim Harrick Jr.'s exams in circulation as we thought.

In any case, those four schools weren't identified in the latest report, because along with a dozen others, they took advantage of a loophole created by new federal privacy rules and avoided publicly reporting any graduation rates at all. No matter. There is enough disgrace to go around.

Another 40 schools that made the tournament field failed to graduate even half their kids, a number that trails the national average by a few percentage points. Ditto for at least four teams in the final 16 (and maybe more, since only 11 of the 16 schools still playing published their graduation rates).

And then there's this: If a 50 percent graduation rate was required for postseason eligibility something the do-gooders on the Knight Commission proposed in 2001 exactly three first-round games would have gone off with the lineups on the floor: Gonzaga vs. Valparaiso, North Carolina vs. Air Force, and Mississippi State vs. Monmouth.

But it gets worse.

On the Boston Globe's Web site last week, columnist Derrick Z. Jackson broke down the numbers for African-Americans on scholarship. He found the 37 schools that hid behind the privacy rules to avoid publishing their 2003 graduation rates for blacks averaged just 19.7 percent in the 2002 report. No surprise there, since 13 of the 37 had black graduation rates of zero in 2002.

''When we bring kids to our campuses and fail to educate them in the numbers we're seeing here,'' said Richard Lapchick, who heads the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, ''all we're doing is using them up.''

The search for a scapegoat usually lands on the doorstep of the NCAA, conveniently forgetting the organization simply administers the policies set by member schools. University presidents have been calling those shots for almost 10 years, and as the latest numbers prove, the pace of reform is still at a crawl.

At first, with initiatives like Prop 48, they tried to raise graduation rates by putting the burden squarely on the kids' shoulders. Those moves nudged the rates upward, but not nearly enough. And with new NCAA chief Myles Brand feeling the heat from a lengthening list of embarrassments everything from conference raids to recruiting scandals have landed on his desk a consensus is finally emerging to hold the schools accountable instead.

This latest mess has already persuaded the NCAA to force members to report their 2003 graduation rates in full. That voluntary compliance will allow the organization to sidestep federal restrictions and make the information public late this summer.

''Without continued full publication of the graduation rates especially those at the low end we will lose the ability to expose those athletics programs which are failing to educate their student-athletes,'' Brand said.

Even more promising than public pressure, though, is the so-called ''incentive-disincentive'' proposal that will be put to a vote by the NCAA board in late April. As currently envisioned, the graduation rate for scholarship athletes would have to be within a few percentage points of the general student body or schools would face penalties ranging from a warning, to loss of scholarships, and possibly even a ban on postseason play.

Assuming the measure is approved, another four years likely would pass before the penalties were phased in. It's a long way away, but it's a start. And as any parent would tell you, it's never too early to make kid stick his nose in a book.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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