As Adam Hirst ’10 noted yesterday, for three weeks each spring, March Madness becomes an obsession — we fill out brackets and then anxiously watch to see how our favorite teams fare. Yet the standings on ESPN ignore statistics that are ultimately more important for the players and universities we cheer for. A number of teams competing in the NCAA tournament have alarmingly low graduation rates, even when adjusted to exclude players who leave school to play professionally.
At the University of Kentucky, for example, a top-seeded team, only 31 percent of players can expect to graduate within six years — and that number drops to 18 percent for black team members. At the University of Maryland, the worst-ranking school in terms of graduation rates, only 8 percent of players graduate within six years, according to the most recent NCAA report. And, for the past three years, not a single black Maryland player has graduated. (Not to mention that the team did not fare well in the tournament.)
Though I do not believe that the 12 schools with graduation rates lower than 40 percent should be barred from participating in the tournament, as has been proposed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, I think that these statistics call into question the role of a university and its responsibility to its student athletes.
For many team members, recruited as 18-year-olds with big dreams, a college degree likely seems superfluous when compared to the fame and fortune that await in the professional leagues. And during March Madness — or , for that matter, the college football bowl games of December and January — this idea is reinforced with each victory. Games are broadcast on major networks, and evening news hosts eagerly recap game highlights. Followers nationwide take bets and hold their breath. Players become bona fide celebrities.
Nevertheless, at the end of even the best season, how many of these players actually make it professionally? Not more than a small fraction. Duke currently has 14 in the NBA. But the players were drafted over a period of 16 years. And no other school, save UCLA (with 14 as well), has sent as many in recent years.
The universities, however, reap a number of benefits by having strong teams. At state universities, many of which have endured recent cuts in government funding, top performing teams are much-needed sources of profit. And at all schools, the tournament fosters school spirit and nationwide attention — imagine a three-week-long Harvard-Yale weekend. Given such benefits, which admittedly reach beyond the athletic department, it is unsurprising that colleges do not force their basketball teams to prioritize academics.
Yet the universities that let academic standards slide for their players fail to fulfill their roles as educational institutions. At its heart, a university exists to educate its students about the world around them and prepare them to succeed after graduation. At most institutions, this translates in part to helping students gain the skills necessary to be successful in the workforce. Even liberal arts schools like Yale, which tout the importance of a well rounded education rather than training for a specific career, seek to prepare students for fulfilling jobs. Giving students the tools to become successful is the duty of a university — to athletes and non-athletes alike.
Recognizing that most of their players will never make a living out of basketball, universities must ensure that those players are prepared to follow other paths. Giving them the tools to succeed after college is the least a university can do to give back to the athletes that bring in significant revenue, For a university to welcome top athletes and reap the benefits of their performance, then abandon them without degrees or places on professional teams, is exploitative. And prioritizing academics does not necessarily have to come at the cost of competitiveness — just look at Duke, with a 92 percent graduation rate for its men’s basketball team.
After the madness of March has worn off, it is a degree, not a championship win, that will be most beneficial to the majority of players.
Jessica Shor is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.