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NCAA needs a reality check when it comes to grad rates for black athletes

There’s not equity among black and white athletes, and some schools are still lagging behind

The NCAA’s sugarcoating of black academic success cannot hide its blatant acceptance of racial disparities in my 23rd annual Graduation Gap Bowl. The gulf between black and white players has not changed in a decade, although you wouldn’t know that from the shameless paternalism of this governing body.

Take the past three years of graduation rate reports. From the exclamations, you’d think NCAA president Mark Emmert was white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in a modern effort “to break every yoke” to free the oppressed.

In releasing the 2018 report in November, which included a record Graduation Success Rate (GSR) in Division I, Emmert said, “Most significant is the number of black student-athletes who earn their degree. As college graduates, they are much more likely to have successful careers after they leave school.”

That follows a similarly lauded 2017 report in which Emmert said, “The dramatic improvement in the graduation rate for African-American student-athletes in all sports is a significant achievement, and our student-athletes and member schools should be proud of the work they are doing.”

That is on top of the 2016 rates report, where Emmert said that “the really good news is how college sports helps more and more minority students.”

To be fair, African-American male athletic graduation rates as defined by the NCAA have improved significantly over the years. A record-low number of schools in the Gap Bowl — just one, Oklahoma State — had a team or black graduation rate under 50 percent, the bare minimum long recommended by reformers for eligibility for postseason play. And there is cause for some celebration among the four teams playing for the College Football Playoff National Championship, as three of the four teams — Notre Dame, Clemson and Alabama — have black GSRs above the Division I FBS average: respectively 87 percent, 82 percent and 79 percent.

But before one joins the NCAA in a hallelujah chorus, there are several sober realities to consider. There ought to be improvement, given what universities spend on football players. For example, defending national champion Alabama annually spends 26 times more on a scholarship football player than a regular student: $419,000 to $16,000, according to the spending database of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Then there is comparative and metaphoric analysis you will never see in an NCAA press release. While the black football GSR has risen from 53 percent to 75 percent since 2002, the white rate rose from 76 percent to 91 percent in the same time period. In terms of numerical academic grading, it’s as if white players moved from a C to an A-minus while black players moved from an F to the very same C that white players once earned. For all of the chest-thumping of the NCAA, black football players have finally caught up to where white players were … a decade ago.

Wow. This is something for universities to be proud of? Let’s get this straight. While football programs fail to graduate one white player for every 10, they discard 2.5 black players out of every 10. When programs fail their black players at rates double to triple that of white players, the inescapable fact is they are still helping white players more than black players.

Worse, the 2018 gap of 16 percentage points is actually wider than the narrowest gap recorded, of 14 percentage points in 2007.

That leaves black and white athletes in separate worlds of academic expectation. While 12 of the 80 bowl teams had GSRs of 85 percent or higher for black players, five times more (61) had white graduation rates in that stratosphere. Twenty-six teams had racial gaps of 20 percentage points or more.

The 11 worst gaps of between 26 percentage points and 44 percentage points were held by Louisiana Tech, Oklahoma State, Buffalo, Washington State, Ohio, Florida, Texas A&M, California, Ohio State, Michigan State and Houston. The worst 10 in black graduation rates, far below the national average, are Oklahoma State, Brigham Young, Louisiana Tech, Georgia, Ohio State, Eastern Michigan, Buffalo, California, Houston and Georgia Southern.

I asked Oklahoma State’s athletic department for an explanation of its 38 percent African-American football player graduation rate. In emails, it said, “The latest GSR numbers include two years in which we did struggle in the classroom for various reasons, although several more of those student-athletes are now approaching graduation.”

The department said those two years saw a large number of athletes transfer or leave early for pro football, spurring “a conscious decision to put more of an emphasis on retention.” It was confident that athletic academic performance is now on a “strong and consistent climb.”

Similarly, I asked Cal-Berkeley to explain why the so-called “Public Ivy” with a federal campus graduation rate of 91 percent could harbor a football program with a paltry black male GSR of 57 percent. That is 30 percentage points behind the white players. Cal has been a chronic offender in either my Gap Bowl or its counterpart during March Madness, comparing the graduation rates of basketball teams in the Division I tournament. The Cal basketball team’s GSR is a terrible 40 percent, while the white player GSR is a perfect 100 percent.

In an email, the university responded that the NCAA data do not yet reflect recent campus reforms and admissions standards for student-athletes that have the football program on track to have an African-American football player GSR “north of 80 percent” in future reports.

Good for Cal and Oklahoma State, if and when their promised improvements show up on NCAA reports. But many programs have given me the same explanation in the past, and the overall disparities remain locked in place. A huge part of the reason is the NCAA has no sanctions in place to punish schools with chronic wide racial disparities.

Equity means equity. I don’t care if the black GSR on a football team is 80 percent if that same school is graduating every single white athlete. That still means that while no white football player is left behind, 1 out of every 5 black players is used up and spit out. No pride should be taken at schools like Washington State and Florida, which graduate all their white players, while 1 out of every 3 three black players hits the street with no diploma.

That gets me back to Emmert and Garrison. In a seminal 1854 speech, Garrison declared there should be “No compromise with slavery!” With the NCAA facing many self-inflicted questions and lawsuits over the bizarre world it has created, one where exploited male football and basketball players must conduct themselves as amateurs while universities, television networks and apparel hawkers make NFL and NBA money off them, there can be absolutely no compromise with graduation rates.

Anything short of that means Emmert and the NCAA have settled for a more dubious place in history, one that reeks of America’s racist compromises that continue to institutionalize racism.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a nine-time winner of news and sports reporting and commentary from the National Association of Black Journalists, a Pulitzer finalist and co-author of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.