By TIM DAHLBERG, Associated Press
Filling out a bracket for the NCAA tournament is pretty much a crapshoot, no matter how much you study or how good you guess. That was especially true last year, when no No. 1 seed made the Final Four yet Butler somehow found its way there for the second straight year.
Figuring out which schools care as much about academics as they do basketball is a lot easier.
Attend Duke or, say, Creighton and you're pretty much assured a degree if not a career in the NBA. Both schools in recent years graduated all their basketball players, as did four other teams in this year's field.
Matriculate somewhere else, and you might end up working behind the counter at Subway.
That's the reality of college athletics, where the payoff for athletes doesn't come close to matching the payday for schools. The NCAA tournament is a billion-dollar-a-year business that distributes riches to almost everyone involved except the ones who really count — the unpaid labor toiling on the court.
They play for the fun of the game and, for an elite few, the hope of making it in the pros. For the vast majority, though, the only payout in the end is a college degree they might not have been able to pursue if not for their ability on the basketball court.
Unfortunately, some schools are failing their athletes — and failing them miserably. That's especially true when it comes to black basketball players.
Richard Lapchick, who does an annual report on graduation rates for the University of Central Florida, said black players are graduating at a 60 percent rate while white players were at 88 percent.
At the University of Florida, only one in five black basketball players get their degrees, according to NCAA statistics. At the University of Virginia, it's one in three. And it doesn't take a math major to figure out that a 14 percent graduation rate among black players at defending national champion Connecticut is both abysmal and disgraceful.
"We used to report schools that hadn't graduated a black basketball player in a decade and the NCAA couldn't do a thing about it," said Lapchick, whose studies on race and academics in colleges as director of UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, have helped draw attention to a subject once rarely discussed. "Now they can."
The good news is that things are getting marginally better. Coaches are being forced to pay more attention to academics, and there are new penalties that will eventually reduce the number of basketball factories in the nation's institutes of higher education.
They're hardly perfect, and they contain way too many loopholes for a cagey coach to exploit. But they are a start, and the potential ban of UConn from next year's tournament because of poor academics should serve as a wakeup call for those who still don't get it.
Credit NCAA president Mark Emmert for some of it. He runs an organization that in the past appeared to be uncertain about its true purpose, which is to educate athletes and protect the integrity of college athletics. Since coming on board a little more than a year ago, he has repeatedly pushed proposals for tougher academic standards, some more effective than others.
Give Education Secretary Arne Duncan an assist, too. The former Harvard basketball player has made it his annual mission as the tournament rolls around to remind folks that coaches, as well as universities, need to be held accountable for performance in the classroom.
"Where folks take this seriously, and build it as part of their institutional culture, really good things happen to student-athletes," Duncan said Wednesday. "If folks want to play around the margins and not take it seriously, we can address that."
A lot of folks have played around the margins — and still do. Eight schools in this year's tournament fall below the minimum graduation rate standards set by the NCAA and face sanctions if they don't improve. One of them is UConn, which didn't get serious about improving its graduation rates until being hit with a postseason ban for next year that the university is currently appealing.
Still, the graduation numbers for both black and white players are 15 points higher than when Lapchick first started charting graduation rates a decade ago. There has been progress, even if the NCAA graduation standards can still be circumvented in various ways. Kentucky, for instance, remains in good standing on the academic performance watch even if just two of the eight freshmen and sophomores on John Calipari's team three years ago are still on the roster.
By next year, teams must graduate 50 percent of their players to be eligible for postseason play. Coaches may argue otherwise, but that's not an unreasonable standard, especially when you consider the tutors and other academic help given to athletes.
The great thing about the NCAA tournament is that everyone has a chance to succeed.
We should ask for no less when it comes to players getting their degrees.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(ap)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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