March Madness Graduation Rates Show A Major Race Issue

Despite sunny headlines of overall success, gap between white and African-American players has widened

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Mar 23, 2017 at 3:35 PM ET

Double-taking while reading the following Associated Press wire story headline is entirely understandable: “Sweet 16 teams experiencing all-time high academic success.” Unfortunately, one need only peruse the numbers more carefully to realize that rosy summation masks a widening racial divide.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida compiled the Academic Progress Rate (APR) of all 32 Division I men’s and women’s hoops teams still alive in March Madness. The findings: 31 of those teams all have an APR of 960 or better which, in less byzantine terms, means that the majority of each program is retaining the majority of their athletes in school while they maintain their academic eligibility and progress toward a degree. (Schools with a four-year APR average of less than 930 are ineligible for tournament play.)

Six women’s programs, including world-beating top seed UConn, are all graduating 100 percent of their players while two men’s teams—Butler and Kansas—are also perfect on that count. Only three men’s teams don’t have a graduation success rate (GSR) of at least 70 percent: UCLA and UNC (50 percent each) and Oregon (38 percent).

The Ducks are the academic laggards on all counts: their men’s team is responsible for the one sub-960 APR (945), and their women’s program is also last in graduation rate at 79 percent.

Dig deeper into the data, however, and one will find a major area for improvement that undermines much of the overall success. The TIDES study indicated that the discrepancy between white male and African-American male graduation rates was a “cavernous” 18 percent: 95 percent for white men, 77 percent for African-American men. Among women, the chasm persists but is narrower: the same 95 percent graduation rate for white female players and 88 percent for African-American women.

“For the second straight year, academically this is the sweetest Sweet 16 ever,” Richard Lapchick, the Ph.D. director of TIDES, said in a release. “Nonetheless, we still need to further close the gaps between the GSR of white male and female basketball student-athletes and African-American male and female basketball student-athletes.”

A TIDES study earlier in the month encompassing all 68 men’s tournament teams found a similar gap in graduation rates among white players (93 percent) and African-American players (74 percent). The 19-percent difference was one point higher than in 2016, marking the first increase since 2011.

“The most troubling statistics in our study is the increasing in the already large disparity between the GSR of white basketball student-athletes and African-American basketball student-athletes,” Lapchick said in that paper. “As bad as it has been, it was at least getting better. Equally bad is the news that the GSR rate for African-American basketball student-athletes has declined for the first time. The 2017 report sounds an alarm of reversed progress and points to a need for increased vigilance regarding the disparity between white and African-American student-athletes.”

And that should be the takeaway of all this academic data. It’s hard to crow about overall numbers when such a problem persists. In this case, the sum should be seen as less than its parts.