A study by the Institute for the Diversity and Ethics in Sports found that NCAA men’s basketball programs have the worst record of any college sport when it comes to graduating its players with a college degree. The report, which looked at the number of NCAA athletes earning an undergraduate diplomas in six years, found that more than a dozen Division I schools failed to graduate even half of their men’s basketball players. Basketball powerhouse University of Connecticut rated dead last with only a quarter its players receiving their degrees by the time they leave the school.
This is in sharp contrast to another school with a storied basketball program. Marquette, where “student-athlete” is not just a meaningless appellation, shepherded 91% of its players to a degree this year, and have even reached 100% graduation rate in some years. According to school president Reverend Scott Pilarz, their success stems partly from their Jesuit roots and a tradition of making academics a priority, and partially from one-on-one assistance given to every student — whether he or she participates in the school’s athletics programs.
“Part of who we are as a Jesuit university makes us insist that we care for these students from every point of the compass,” Pilarz said. “We have this tradition called cura personalis – which goes back to the 16th century and really is rooted in Ignatius Loyola’s experience of how God treated him as a unique individual — and that’s how we want to treat all our students. We really try to stress meeting them where they are individually and then moving them along so they achieve well academically.”
The Catholic college uses this academic focus as an athletic recruiting tool, making sure that potential students know and understand that class will not come second to time on the court. The first thing that freshman athletes encounter on campus is not a spirited pick-up game, but an intensive summer school course designed to help those who are struggling prepare for the rigors of college coursework.
The plight of elite college athletes who fail to become the 1% who move on to professional sports leagues, and for whom a lack of a college degree is a real barrier to a traditional post-college career, has long concerned the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Duncan recalls playing pick-up ball on the streets of Chicago with too many “almost made it” players who had nothing to show for their four year college stints other than money that had made for others.
“There were all these amazing stars who generated lots of money for the universities they played for and had nothing, zero, to show for it after the season,” Duncan said. “I always felt that was morally wrong.”
Duncan decided to do something about it. Using his bully pulpit as education secretary, he went on TV programs, held news conferences and wrote editorials suggesting teams that fail to graduate at least 40% of their players should be banned from postseason tournaments.
Finally, the NCAA is listening. A new rule adopted last fall will bar any college program that fails to graduate at least half of its athletes for four consecutive years from participating in the postseason. And the first school to be affected by the new rule will be last year’s champion University of Connecticut. Regardless of how well they do by their basketball players this year, come 2013, they will be sitting our March Madness — and will continue to sit out the NCAA basketball tournaments until they raise the percentage of their basketball players who graduate.