In all but the rarest circumstances, a team that's won 50 percent of its games isn't getting anywhere near the NCAA men's basketball tournament, unless it has tickets. But those that graduate half of their players -- or fewer -- are routinely ushered behind the velvet ropes of March Madness and given their fat envelopes of cash.
The academic progress rate (APR) doesn't factor into the selection process. Ten teams with an APR below 925, which translates to a graduation rate of about 50 percent, made the NCAA field this year. According to the Knight Commission, from 2006 through 2010, teams falling below that lenient standard earned $178.8 million in NCAA tournament revenues.
That's about 44 percent of the money distributed. From the perspective of the Knight Commission, it's about 44 percent too much. The organization, which advocates for college athletic departments to respect their schools' educational mission, proposed in 2001 that teams graduating fewer than half their athletes should be ineligible for the tournament. Last year, it called for the NCAA to create a new formula for distributing tournament revenues that would set aside some of the money for schools that meet minimum academic standards.
Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission, understands that APRs and GPAs won't be topics of discussion at most Final Four gatherings this Saturday. But academic reform should be part of the everyday conversation in college sports, and the commission's leadership continues to give voice to those who hope the NCAA's showcase event might one day value degrees as much as dollars.
"The public likes to be entertained, but they have to understand the model is at risk if the policies don't align with the values," Perko said. "If a team is not on track to graduate players, if it historically has not graduated players, everyone realizes something needs to change.
"This has gone on too long. The NCAA put in a system in 2004 to create accountability, but we're still not seeing the types of outcomes we need to see. The core mission has to be tied to education."
Of the teams playing in Saturday's Final Four, the thinking person's favorite is Butler, which has a perfect APR of 1000. Virginia Commonwealth is at 975, Kentucky at 954 and Connecticut at 930, close to the edge of that 50 percent standard.
Perko stressed that most schools are trying to graduate players, and many are doing a better job of it since the NCAA introduced the APR in 2004. Last year, 19 schools in the NCAA tournament had APRs of 925 or below. The 10 who made this year's field while failing to meet that mark include Syracuse (912), Purdue (919), San Diego State (921) and Morehead State (906).
Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, released his annual study of NCAA tournament teams earlier this month. While he found the overall graduation rate of participating teams had increased slightly, to 66 percent, he discovered the gap between white and black athletes has widened. In his 2009 study, white players posted a graduation rate 22 points higher than their black counterparts; this year, it is 32 percent.
Lapchick joined U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, in supporting the Knight Commission's recommendations.
"Until we prohibit their participation, until we deal with the financial piece of this, we'll continue just to get lip service," said Duncan, who was a co-captain of Harvard's basketball team. "We've had team after team, year after year, act like they're surprised with these results. ... If you hit folks in the pocketbook, in a very short order, I think you would see dramatically better results."
Jealous said NAACP representatives plan to visit schools with APRs below 925 and request they develop a plan to improve it. Perko, like Duncan, anticipates that the consequences will have to become more severe to get chronically underachieving schools in line. Though the NCAA is slow to adopt change, she hopes the schools that are doing things right will support legislation to stop rewarding the ones that don't. Duncan said he has already heard from "dozens and dozens" of coaches who want to see that kind of pressure applied.
At this point, the Knight Commission's recommendations are only fodder for discussion. They should be given a serious hearing by college administrators, and they shouldn't wait another 10 years.
It's easy to ignore problems when the party is in full swing. When March Madness ends Monday, there will be no better time to finally work toward an effective solution to an issue that cannot be put off any longer.
"The real madness is that we tolerate coaches who prepare students for victory on the court and for failure in life," Jealous said. "This is an easy problem to solve. It simply comes down to leadership."
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org