Politicizing March Madness

Politicizing March Madness

Nicolaus Mills: Politicizing March Madness

If you are a basketball fan, this is the best time of the year. The top college basketball teams in the country are in the midst of their annual nationwide National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. Thanks to television, the games–which are initially scheduled at four venues across the country–can be watched day and night.

The appeal of the NCAA Tournament lies in the charm that made the 1986 film Hoosiers such a pleasure to watch. In professional basketball teamwork has become an anachronism. Most of the time, the pros are content to trade long-distance jump shots. They are such skilled shooters that old-fashioned teamwork has gone out the window.

But today?s college players, like the high schoolers Gene Hackman coached in Hoosiers, still need to pass, run fast breaks, and set screens in order to be effective scorers. For them, teamwork–and the combination of sacrifice and coordination that it involves–is critical.

This year, however, the old-fashioned appeal of the NCAA Tournament has been challenged by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who recently raised concerns over the low graduation rates at many of the nation?s top basketball schools: only 31 percent of Kentucky’s team graduates, 37 percent of Clemson’s, 38 percent of Louisville’s, and 36 percent of Missouri’s.

To make matters worse, there is a significant disparity between white and black graduation rates. At Clemson only 31 percent of black players graduated while 100 percent of white players did, at Kentucky 18 percent of black players graduated and 100 percent of white players, and at Missouri 25 percent of black players graduated and 100 percent of white players.

Duncan?s answer to the graduation problem is that teams should be barred from post-season play if they cannot graduate at least 40 percent of their players. As Duncan observed in a pre-NCAA Tournament press conference, ?That?s a low bar. If you can?t graduate two out of five of your student-athletes, how serious are you about the academic part of your mission??

Duncan is right, of course. But he is not likely to get much help from the schools that do best in the NCAA Tournament. They are sharing in the $500 million CBS provides annually for broadcast rights to the tournament, and at a time when college endowments are sinking, the nation?s leading basketball schools are not likely to turn down easy money.

In the meantime, the big losers are the non-graduating athletes. Most are not good enough to play in the NBA, and without a college degree, their job prospects are grim. Even coaching at the high school level is not an option without a college degree.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt used the prestige of his office to make college football safer by forcing the top schools in the country to abandon the dangerous ?flying wedge,? which had caused numerous deaths. The Obama administration, which has its hands full these days trying to bring minimal regulation to the banking system, does not have the prestige to pull off a TR approach to college basketball. But in politicizing the NCAA Tournament, Arne Duncan has taken a step in the right direction. The government provides colleges with all sorts of funding, and there is every reason to see the graduation rates of the nation?s best college basketball players as a civil rights issue in which the Department of Education is entitled to have a say.

Photo: Louisville mascott (K. Coles / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons).

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