U of M has more work to do in graduating Black student-athletes

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Graduation rates of Black student-athletes in U.S. colleges have shown marked improvement. Too bad the University of Minnesota’s student-athletes in the school’s revenue sports are not sharing in the national “good news.”

A new study released in April by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida recently examined Graduation Success Rates (GSR) for Black student-athletes in revenue sports such as football and basketball, and also examined graduating cohorts of students who entered school between 1984 and 2001. It analyzed the NCAA GSR and the Federal Graduation Rates and compared them to the overall student body graduation rates.

The study found that all Black student-athletes’ graduation rates increased 18 percent, from 35 percent in 1984 to 53 percent in 2001, compared to only a nine percent increase by Whites (59 percent to 68 percent) over the same period.

Additionally, the graduation rate for male Black student-athletes jumped 15 percent, from 33 percent in 1984 to 48 percent of male Black student-athletes who graduated in 2001. (Whites only showed a six-percent improvement.)

Female Black student-athletes showed a 21-percent increase (45 percent to 66 percent), while their White female counterparts displayed only an eight-percent increase.

Also, in the three years since the first TIDES study, Black men’s basketball players’ GSR have improved five percentage points, from 49 percent in 2006 to 54 percent this year, and four percentage points in football (from 54 percent in 2006 to 58 percent in 2009).

TIDES Director Richard Lapchick, who authored the study, said that the low graduation rates for Black student-athletes have been a big concern for over 20 years. The improvement “is very good news for college sport,” he notes.

“This data…indicates that our athletic departments may be doing a better job in creating an environment for success for African American student-athletes than our institutions of higher education are in general,” Lapchick observes
There also were gains by White student-athletes, but they were less substantial, the report claimed.

Unfortunately, at the University of Minnesota, the school’s top three revenue sports — football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball — are not doing as well in graduating their Black players. Their rates are 40 percent (football), 57 percent (women’s basketball), and 38 percent (men’s basketball), compared to Whites in football (73 percent), men’s basketball (50 percent) and women’s basketball (67 percent).

Furthermore, there is a 12-percent graduation rate disparity between the Gophers’ Black and White men’s basketball student-athletes, and 10 percent between White and Black women’s basketball student-athletes.

The 33 percent graduation gap between the U of M’s Black and White football players is the worst.

“I am not pleased,” admits U of M Athletics Director Joel Maturi.

The Gophers’ men’s athletic programs ranks 10th among Big Ten schools, and the women’s programs finished third in the conference, according to the NCAA “Academic Progress Report” (APR) released last week, which measures academic progress for Division I student-athletes from 2004-05 to 2007-08.

“I think people need to see the big picture,” says Maturi, as he points out that 18 out of 25 Gophers teams exceeded the NCAA minimum 925 score. “The great majority of our sports are graduating our athletes, and our kids are doing tremendously well in the community and on the playing field. We have some sports that need to do better, but the culture is hard to change.”

Nonetheless, Lapchick’s findings appear to be a better indicator on how Minnesota is doing in regard to graduating its Black players.

Francine St. Clair, a former U of M academic advisor, says that schools such as Minnesota might be too large to provide quality attention to Black student-athletes once they arrive on campus, especially those who have struggled academically even back in high school.

“Big research institutions [like] Minnesota are not really meant to be a school for pretty much under-prepared or socio-economically deprived people,” notes St. Clair, now senior associate athletics director at Northern Illinois University (NIU). She directs her school’s student-athlete academic support services; under her direction, NIU athletes in 2007 posted the highest cumulative GPA in school history.

“In order to be in the Big Ten and be nationally competitive athletically, you have to take some risks,” St. Clair explains. “When you take those risks, you’ve really got to have the support to turn those risks into winning.”

U of M admissions standards are increasing becoming more challenging for those who might be gifted athletically but are academically marginal, says Maturi.

“The environment here is harder and harder for all students, let alone the tremendously disadvantaged ones.”

Things have improved to ensure that Black athletes succeed academically, but admittedly this hasn’t always been the case, adds U of M Associate AD Leo Lewis.

Several years ago, Lewis helped established the athletic department’s Cultural Diversity Task Force along with a mentoring program for the school’s Black athletes “that provides another meaningful experience by having our student-athletes stay in touch with the African American community at large.

“Those professionals and community leaders who have an interest in the welfare of our student-athletes are put in position where they can mentor them,” Lewis says.

“We are in the third year, so it is still a work in progress,” says Linda Roberts, who coordinates the mentoring program and directed a similar program for U of M Black female athletes in the 1990s. “My goal each year is to make sure that it increases both the mentors and the mentorees participating, and making sure that when the freshmen and sophomores come in, that they get involved right away.”

However, when it comes to academic progress and graduating with a college degree, which is mainly responsible for ensuring that Black student-athletes achieve this goal — the institution, the coach, or the Black student-athlete?

“We need to make sure that we recruit a young person who has the stamina, support, and the understanding that it is not going to be easy, but with the help we can give them, he or she can be successful,” Maturi believes.

St. Clair argues, “I think that the responsibility ultimately falls on the student. If the student comes in with the same hungriness and the same will that they do to make it to the NFL or the NBA, they will get their degree.

“The coach does have some responsibility,” she adds. “If they recruit that student to come to their school, [they] now have some responsibility to that student’s welfare and to see that they have an opportunity to get an education.”

Finally, everyone does agree that Black student-athlete graduation rates must continue to improve. “This is an issue that we still do need to address on our campuses,” says Lapchick.

St. Clair, however, points out that this effort might need to start before Black student-athletes arrive on campus. “We have to do a better job of preparing them for going on academically, because our kids for the most part, especially from our public schools…are not as prepared as they need to be. They are competing on the field, but they have to compete in the classroom, too.

“We have to do a better job of educating them in high school,” she concludes.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com, or read his blog: www.www challman.blogspot.com.

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