March Madness and the Student Athlete

PicturePhoto courtesy of SD Dirk

The end of March has come and gone, and while it has brought with it certain forms of madness, like the madness accompanying a far too long winter and the madness of a far too packed work schedule, there is no madness quite like the one that comes with basketball – college basketball, that is.

That’s right, the NCAA March Madness tournament has once again taken place, and with it came a flurry of bracket competitions, college jerseys, and hours upon hours of television coverage. But there is another important conversation that rears its controversial head every year around this time and is still yet to be resolved: the dropping graduation rates of African-American scholar athletes in the NCAA.

This year, the alarming statistic reads as such: fourteen of the sixty-eight competing schools have graduation rates for African American athletes below fifty percent, with Oklahoma State University graduating a measly 13%. On the other hand, sixteen schools in the 2015 tournament, including Duke, Harvard and Villanova, possess graduation rates for African American athletes at 100%.

Oklahoma State University is not a stranger to such lists. Its football team nearly suffered a postseason ban in 2014 due to poor team academic performance according to the Academic Progress Rate, a measure for the team that assesses the eligibility and retention of student-athletes. The team scored 3.94 above the benchmark average two-year rate of 940. Should the team have not made the cutoff, athletic scholarships would have been put on hold, as their implementation is contingent on active participation in the college sport.

In fact, this season eight men’s basketball teams were banned from competing in the tournament because their Academic Progress Rates were too low: Alabama State, Appalachian State, Florida A&M, Houston Baptist, Lamar, San Jose State, Central Arkansas and Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

During March Madness in 2011, the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed his dissatisfaction at the emphasis placed on sports over education at such top division schools and pointed out that Black student athletes were especially affected. “If these institutions can’t manage to see half of their athletic body graduate,” Duncan said, “how serious are the institution, the coach and the program about their players’ academic success?”

This stark difference in graduation rates and academic performance between different universities can be attributed to a myriad of reasons: student background, interest in education, injury and the loss of athletic scholarships, going professional, or many other reasons. And while entering the professional sports world might be the ultimate goal for most college athletes—and participation in college athletics is an important step towards that goal—less than 2% of college athletes advance to the professional level.

These numbers might create the foundation of a larger story – one that Arthur Ashe characterized as a mindset held by coaches and players alike who think sports are “a way to untold riches and fame even if your grades don’t hold up along the way.” According to Ashe, it is unfortunate that the path of college sports is seen as the substitute to strong academic performance. It was his hope that “America will one day set the role of sports in general in its proper place, but also that black Americans will no longer believe that sports represent the quickest route to success.”

There is no doubt that athletic talent is to be cherished and utilized to the full extent. But a complete education is equally, if not more, important. College athletic programs seem to be overly preoccupied with the performance of their teams on the field as opposed to their performance within the classroom, seemingly punishing students if their athletic obligations cannot be fulfilled. While the Academic Progress Rate is a step in the right direction, the NCAA needs to do more in the immediate future to ensure that the academic excellence of their student athletes becomes the main priority in every college across the country.

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