Graduation Rates and Proof of College Basketball’s Racism (Plus A Small Apology to Roy Williams)

At best, my feeling toward college basketball is apathy… this stems from it being a horrible on-the-court product that people inexplicably rave about (OK, it’s because it’s filled with “scrappy” (i.e. white) players vs. the “lazy” (i.e. black) players of the NBA). At worst, my feeling is hostility… this stems from the hypocritical cesspool that is college sports. Trying to explain the college sports system to non-Americans exposes how stupid the whole thing is… the players are students, but not really; the teams are representative of the school, but not really; it’s a minor-league for sports, but the players don’t get paid; etc., etc.

And that’s without even trying to explain what horrible scumbags college basketball coaches are. This collection of overpaid men who make their money on the back of unpaid players who normally don’t even get their promised education in return features some of the worst people in sports.

Which is why this year’s Final Four will be held up by college basketball apologists as proof that the system works, both on- and off-the-floor. The success of 8-seed Butler and 11-seed VCU will validate the “anything can happen” advertising slogan, rather than illustrate how college basketball is a crappy product whose real stars jump to the NBA after one year. And, since two non-traditional powers have made runs, the graduation rates for the Final Four will be better than normal.

Every year, the University of Central Florida does a study of the graduation rates of teams that make March Madness, and as usual, the results are illuminating and depressing.

Butler’s men’s basketball team has an 83% graduation rate, not surprising for a small private school in Indiana with one NBA player in the past 60 years, and the same as the school’s overall athlete graduation rate. Virginia Commonwealth University’s team might be the feel-good story of the year, but their graduation rate is only 56%, against 75% for other athletes at the school. Given that there are only two VCU grads (oh wait, I mean former “student-athletes”) are in the NBA, they should probably aim to be above the NCAA average of 66%.

Obviously, most basketball powers have abysmal graduation rates, because the ability to thrive in this system usually depends on being able to use up players most thoroughly. Sure, their numbers are pushed down a bit by players jumping to the NBA, but even at the best programs this is the exception, not the rule. One regular exception… the much-unfairly-maligned Coach K, whose Blue Devils graduate at an 83% clip (below Duke’s 97% athlete number, but still).

The poster child this year for using players (as well as cheating) is UConn’s Jim Calhoun. His team graduation rate is 31%, 52 points below the 83% for UConn athletes overall! This man makes $2.3 million to be an “educator” from the main public university in a state with a $3.4 billion budget deficit. And shockingly, John Calipari isn’t all about hitting the books… the Wildcats are at 44%, 30 points lower than the rest of Lexington’s student-athletes. But it doesn’t take much to look better than Wild Jim.

The big surprise? Both The Dilemma and I have called out Roy Williams for his faux-corn-pone annoyingness. But I, at least, feel I owe him a bit of an apology. Uncle Roy graduates his players at a 88% clip, higher than the great Coach K, miraculous for a public university that’s a perennial basketball power. The worst school? Arizona at 20% (vs. 65% for athletes as a whole)… Bobbi Olson must be gazing up proudly.

The most shocking thing about the numbers? The proof that they give to the idea that college basketball uses black players like Shake N’ Bake. As I mentioned earlier, the overall graduation rate for all men’s college basketball players is 66% (obviously, this number is buoyed by all the schools that are just happy to make the tourney every once in a while). For white players, however, the number is 91%, which means the number for black players is 59%… or 32% lower! For the Final Four teams? Butler – 100% white vs. 50% black. VCU – 64% black vs. no white players (I’ve found my team). Kentucky – 100% white vs. 31% black. UConn – 50% white vs. 25% black.

Now, I understand that it is probable that white players are coming in more prepared for college than black players. And I know that the argument is that opportunities are being given to black “students” who otherwise wouldn’t get a chance at college. But what kind of chance are these kids really getting? If they don’t make it in the NBA (a long-shot even for those who make it to a good basketball college), odds are they’re out on their ass left with nothing but bittersweet memories, while their coaches and schools count the money they brought in. If we’re going to perpetuate this farce of a system, schools should at least be obligated to give these students all the extra help necessary to get them a degree. How to do it? Former college basketball player Arne Duncan has some good ideas, and there are plenty of other options. But this would presume that college basketball is about education, not money, when we all know different.

Proof that it’s possible to balance educating black athletes with using their ability on the basketball court? Georgetown, with no white players, has a 78% graduation rate for its players. Both John Thompsons should be proud.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Graduation Rates and Proof of College Basketball’s Racism (Plus A Small Apology to Roy Williams)

  1. Lang

    You introduce some interesting ideas, but I’m not sure that the conclusions you draw necessarily follow from your premises. Given the enormous disparity between black and white graduation rates, I do think it is reasonable to suggest that white players really ARE more prepared for their college courses, compared to their black peers, which is an idea you recognize but dismiss without saying why.

    you ask what chance the black players are really getting? I think that the benefits of being a scholarship athlete are incredible. First of all, you have an in with the admissions department. In a time when admissions are more and more competitive, that alone is a huge advantage. You’re tuition is paid, so unlike me who has nearly $100k dollars of debt (coming from a very financially modest family), if you do graduate you will be loan free and financially viable. And then, you get tutor support, etc if you need it. I think that asking what the players “really” get, insinuating that what they get is somehow negative, is not an idea that will gain traction with most people who had to fight and claw their way into schools, graduate, and pay their loans off.

    Not to mention, you get the privilege of playing NCAA bball. That’s just freakin cool. Why should they get paid on top of all those benefits? Why make the other students feel second rate to the athletes who are paid? Their monetary compensation comes in the form of the free ride. Anyway, just thought I’d comment. take care.

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