March 21, 2011

Arne Duncan and keeping teams out of March Madness

Now that we’ve got the Sweet Sixteen all settled, and I’ve studied what remains of my bracket (thanks, Big East), I’ve got time to think about Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s comments on graduation rates and tournament participation. In recent interviews and op-ed pieces, Duncan has offered support for the Knight Commission’s recommendations that schools projected to graduate less than 50% of their players be kept out of post-season tournaments. 
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, formed back in the late 1980s by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has focused on improving academic performance in college athletics, reducing the ‘arms race’ in athletic facilities development, and in integrity and accountability in college sports. The 50% graduation rate recommendation is a noble one, even in the face of protests to the contrary. I mean, c’mon, who wouldn’t strive for something as admirable as graduating half a team?
Well, one problem is how a team’s graduation rate is calculated. Here a couple of definitions from the NCAA’s website:
  • Academic Progress Rate (APR): The APR is a real-time assessment of teams' academic performance. The APR awards two points each term to student-athletes who meet academic-eligibility standards and who remain with the institution. A team's APR is the total points earned by the team at a given time divided by the total points possible.
  • Graduation Success Rate (GSR): The GSR is an NCAA graduation-rate methodology that credits institutions for transfers -- both incoming and outgoing -- as long as they are academically eligible. It differs from the graduation rate mandated by the federal government, which does not count incoming transfers and counts outgoing transfers as having not graduated (regardless of whether they do or not). The GSR also accounts for midyear enrollees and is calculated for every sport.
So what does all of this add up to? On the one hand, take the Notre Dame of a few years ago. Digger Phelps, the former basketball coach, had a remarkable 100% graduation rate during his 20 years as coach, when they counted the 56 kids who played all four years for the Fighting Irish.  Compare that with Syracuse University's current situation - below the 925 APR, and in Duncan's opinion, not eligible for the tourney - primarily because three players left school early.  
But is the school guilty when athletes leave to try their hand in the pros, and should they count in the graduation rate?  It doesn’t seem like the same thing as people dropping out of school or not graduating after they’ve run out of athletic eligibility. And SU was penalized for their academic performance - they lost two scholarships. Other schools met a similar fate.
Is it enough that scholarships are lost, or should teams also be banned from the Big Dance? And should schools be punished because the daily grind of classes and studying, of time in practice and in the weight room, of games and travel and late-night starts, cannot compete with the NBA's starting salary of almost a half million dollars?
Ultimately, what the Knight Commission is trying to bring to college athletics is admirable; so too is Arne Duncan’s push for academic success. Regarding how the scores are counted, Duncan noted "Let's not debate methodology… Let’s get clear on our values. So let's not lose the forest for the trees here." To an extent, he's right - the goal is preparing kids for the future, and that should obviously include not only the fundamentals of basketball, but the educational fundamentals that will help these kids succeed whenever their playing careers are over.
There's plenty of blame to go around, and plenty of opportunities to make amends, including a more equitable formula, I think. What I don't think makes sense is punishing kids on a team who are on track to graduate on time, who are doing the right thing, and keeping them from their dreams.