Fans tuning into football bowl games this holiday season may not realize that a large percentage of the players they cheer for will never receive a degree from the universities that they represent on the field.
A report of the seven NCAA Division I sports conferences found that about half of all black male athletes won’t graduate within six years of starting college.
The report, by the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, rebuts an NCAA study from early 2013, which tabulated the graduation rates among black male athletes as having grown from 59 percent to 65 percent.
Some schools, like Florida State — with a 37 percent graduation rate among its black football players, according to the study — have decided to act on the new data. They’ve hired tutors and academic advisors for athletes while doubling the amount of money in academic support programs, said Florida State President Eric Barron.
Starting with admissions
Among the universities with top-ranking football programs, Stanford stood out with an 82 percent graduation rate among black football players.
The average college graduation rate (within six years) for all student-athletes is 67 percent, versus the black male athlete graduation rate of 50 percent. For all university students, over the same period, the average graduate rate is 73 percent, versus 56 percent for all black male students.
"Our student athletes typically have many college choices in addition to Stanford but come here because they want and value a Stanford degree,” said Stanford spokesman Brad Hayward. “They arrive motivated to finish."
Associate athletics director at Duke University Brad Berndt similarly believes that a successful graduation rate among black male athletes begins with the admissions process and coach involvement.
In the study, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education ranked Duke sixth of the top 10 schools with the highest graduation rates among black male athletes, at 73 percent. Their overall graduation rate for all their student athletes was 85 percent.
At Duke, if a potential student-athlete has the talent to perform in the sport of his choice but doesn’t have the drive to succeed academically or isn’t prepared, recruiters and administrators will pass over the student in favor of someone else, Berndt said. Even for coaches, he said, academic success is more important than athletic talent.
Academic support systems
Even some of the brightest student-athletes in college need help successfully juggling studies and a time-consuming sports career. Providing tutors, academic advisors and other support services to student-athletes are common practices at many universities.
Some schools take it a step further.
“We also work to ensure that student-athletes are integrated with the broader university community and are full participants in the undergraduate life of the university, which tends to improve the likelihood of academic success,” Stanford’s Hayward said.
Duke likewise pushes student-athletes, and new ones in particular, to fully integrate into undergraduate life. The university requires them to take two classes during the summer before the fall semester starts, letting them become acclimated to the new system of college academics and sports.
Negative long-term impacts
Just as both Stanford and Duke profess a belief that the successful career of a student-athlete begins with the admission process, they believe that the crux of the problem lies in admitting unprepared students.
“These institutions that aren’t graduating their students of color should be embarrassed,” Berndt said in an interview. “When they make the decision to admit a student that can’t graduate, it hurts them in the long run.”
Some even believe that colleges play on unrealistic expectations to encourage a large number of black male athletes to put their time and effort into sports, rather than pursuing academic studies that might benefit them more in the long run.
At the University of Alabama, head football coach Nick Saban released a recruitment poster that showed the combined amount of money that nine of Alabama’s former football players made since being drafted by the NFL — together with a background image of checks made out to each player from the teams for which they now play. His football team is 67 percent African-American.
In a phone interview with NPR, Shaun Harper, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, and the lead author of the study, said that recruiting posters like Saban’s intentionally appealed to black athletes from relatively poorer economic background.
College athletes already have an extremely low chance of getting drafted to the NFL. According to NCAA statistics, only 1.7 percent of college football players go professional.
It’s within the power of schools to admit unprepared students, however, it goes against NCAA rules to improperly help those same students obtain passing grades.
One of the most brazen cases came to light in November when a grand jury charged a former professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with fraudulently accepting payment to teach a class, “Blacks in North Carolina,” with no homework, no tests and no faculty oversight.
Prosecutors believe the class was created specifically for student-athletes: 18 of the 19 enrolled students in the summer of 2011 were college football players, according to The New York Times. The Times reports that some critics don’t believe the two faculty members that are being blamed for the scandal could have created a fake class without broader support within the university.
The graduation rate for all athletes at UNC Chapel Hill stands at 74 percent, versus 51 percent for black male athletes at the university.
The New York Times uncovered a similar case in 2006 when a whistleblower at Auburn University claimed that the sociology department awarded good grades even though the students, many of whom were football players, did no discernible work.
Different critics propose targeting different solutions. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants to ban schools from competing in NCAA Tournaments if they graduate less than 40 percent of their athletes, according to the University of Pennsylvania study.
The study’s authors don’t believe a single party can fix the problem.
They call on school administrations to more carefully scrutinize reports coming from their athletics departments, on the families of athletes to avoid the temptation of a too-good-to-be-true path to the NFL, and on coaches and athletics departments to get their players to focus more on academics.
"There's a shared responsibility" of all parties involved, said Duke’s Berndt.
Sam Clemence is an intern for Deseret News where he works with the opinion section staff and as a reporter for the enterprise team. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org