Race Disparity Continues In Div. I-A Football Graduation Rates

By Jeff Zrebiec (BASN Wire Services)
Updated: December 8, 2004

BALTIMORE — The graduation gap between African-American and white athletes playing Division I-A football hasn’t improved, a study released yesterday showed, providing more evidence of race disparity at the highest level of college football.

The study, conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, found that 47 percent of African-Americans who played Division I-A football during the 2003 season graduated, compared to 63 percent of white football players.

The report comes after a two-week period during which three African-American coaches, including Notre Dame’s Tyrone Willingham, were fired or forced to resign, leaving just two black head coaches among 117 in Division I-A.

“It [the report] has to be disturbing and alarming to African-Americans in this country, especially those who hope to play Division I sports,” said Richard Lapchick, who authored the study as the director of the institute. “If you are an athlete going to college to play football, will you get an education when you are there? If you want to coach after you’re done playing, will you get that opportunity?

“It shows that it’s reasonable to get a good education, but you have almost no chance to coach.”

The annual study, titled Keeping Score When it Counts: Assessing the Graduation Rates of the 2004-05 Bowl-bound College Football Teams, reported a 1 percent increase from the previous year in the gap between white and African-American athletes. In the 2003-04 report, 60 percent of white football players graduated, compared to 45 percent of African-Americans.

The slight increase in the graduation gap marred the overall improvements in graduation rates for whites and African-Americans.

However, of the 56 teams playing in this year’s bowl games, 27 schools graduated less than half of their players. Maryland’s numbers were not released because the Terps aren’t going to a bowl.

“The bottom line is the rates are unacceptable,” said Peter Roby, the director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “At some point, somebody on a college campus has to say enough is enough and we have to get back to the mission and find the right balance between collegiate participation and academic integrity.

“A lot of it comes down to leadership and courage to say we’re not going to chase the Holy Grail at the expense of academic reputation.”

Roby, a former basketball player and coach in the Ivy League, said that NCAA president Myles Brand, who was unavailable to comment for this article, and the Division I Board of Directors need time to implement their reform package. The initiative is designed to improve the academic performance of athletes and teams.

Next month, an NCAA Committee on Academic Performance is expected to submit a recommendation for an initiative that will penalize programs for not meeting established requirements for educational progress.

The NCAA also has established a new — and many people think — fairer way to measure graduation rates. Lapchick acknowledged that the way the rates are compiled is unfair because schools are penalized for athletes transferring and getting degrees at another institution.

Regardless, Lapchick saw too many disturbing signs.

“We have to make sure that [athletes] have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field in the classroom,” Lapchick said. “I think that has yet to be accomplished on many campuses. … The ultimate responsibility of universities isn’t to deliver on the [Bowl Championship Series], but to deliver on the promise of an education.”

Out of the bowl-bound teams profiled (Navy was not included because it doesn’t release graduation rates for athletes), Notre Dame, Syracuse and Boston College received the best marks, graduating at least 77 percent of all their athletes and at least 69 percent of African-American athletes.

Ironically, Notre Dame has been at the center of the debate on college football, race and academic achievement. Last spring, Paul Hornung, a former Heisman Trophy winner, suggested that his alma mater should lower its academic standards for black athletes to win more football games. Then, there was the firing of Willingham last week.

“When a school no less than Notre Dame throws Tyrone Willingham under the bus despite the fact that he not only brought in a number of talented athletes and improved on the school’s graduation rates, that doesn’t bode well,” said Harry Edwards, a prominent sports psychologist who has been speaking out about the exploitation of black collegiate athletes for the past 35 years.

“I don’t think there is any question as the money goes up — say in football with the BCS bowls — they are going to bring in a greater and greater number of athletes whose principal reasons for being on campus is to continue [athletic] success.”

Texas, Pittsburgh, Memphis, Colorado, Northern Illinois, Minnesota and Louisville were among the schools that scored the lowest in the report. Overall, nine schools had graduation rates for African-Americans that were at least 30 percent lower than the rates for white athletes.

“I think it’s always significant when an institution is not living up to the objective of graduating student-athletes, whether it’s black or white,” said Maryland wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator James Franklin, a member of the Black Coaches Association. “We all know some schools are seen as just football factories.”

Several people indicated that much of the blame for the low graduation rates should fall on the student-athlete himself.

“I still stand by the point that the athletes have to do something for themselves,” said Willie Jeffries, who became the first African-American to coach a Division I-A team when he was hired by Wichita State in 1979. He is now the director of athletics fund-raising at South Carolina State after serving as the school’s football coach.

Qadry Ismail, who got a degree from Syracuse and started at wide receiver on the Ravens’ Super Bowl-winning team, agreed.

“Too many say, ‘I don’t need to make it in school, because I’m going to make it in the [pros],’” said Ismail, 34, who retired after the 2002 season and is now a commentator for Comcast. “They don’t have a clue, first about how hard it is to do that, and second, about the narrow window you have. …

“A scholarship means that you are being offered an opportunity because of what you can produce on the field. Too many guys don’t understand that you can take advantage of that opportunity, and set yourself up with a Plan B.”

NOTE: Writers Paul McMullen, Lem Satterfield, David Steele and Kevin Van Valkenburg also contributed to this article.