The Madness of March

The Madness of March

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan can moralize all he wants about the "educational mission" of the NCAA schools playing in March Madness–but no one is watching to learn about players’ majors.


Every year, as the NCAA basketball tournament parties onto our television screens, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at University of Central Florida doggedly strives to be the turd in the punch bowl. They release an annual study about the graduation rates of the teams that make it to "the Big Dance." The study’s author, Dr. Richard Lapchick, puts the top programs, and by extension the top head coaches, under an unflattering microscope. But this year, the Lapchick study has received even more attention than usual because Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has gotten into the act. Duncan went public after reading the study, saying that teams that fail to graduate 40 percent of their players should be banned from postseason play.

Duncan, who played college basketball, said on Wednesday, "One out of five men’s teams in the NCAA tournament has graduated less than 40 percent of their players in recent years. If you can’t manage to graduate two out of five players, how serious are the institution and the coach about their players’ academic success? How are you preparing student athletes for life?" (No truth to the rumor Duncan was actually thumping a Bible when he made this statement.) If Duncan had his way, twelve of the sixty-four teams this year would be barred including number 1 seed Kentucky (graduation rate: 31 percent). The lowest performing school is the University of Maryland, with a graduation rate among players measured at 8 percent.

Normally, coaches studiously ignore the Lapchick study, treating it like an unwelcome dinner guest. But Terps coach Gary Williams came out swinging in response. He pointed out that his school has actually graduated nine of their last eleven seniors and all four on this year’s teams. (The Lapchick study takes a six-season window that doesn’t include the last two years).

Williams also said: "First of all, 1999-2003, in that period we had four players leave early to go to the pros. They are all still playing professionally. They haven’t come back and gotten their degrees yet. Hopefully they will. But they’ve made millions and millions of dollars during that time that they left. In other words, they didn’t have their degree, but it all depends how you measure success in your life."

There are multiple political serpents twisting and hissing in this story. It says a great deal about Arne Duncan that his instinct is always to ban, to punish and to ostracize low-performing institutions. This has been his modus operandi as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, as US secretary of education and even now in his offhand comments about the NCAA. There is a reason Newt Gingrich and David Brooks, two people who you could be forgiven for believing wouldn’t send their own children to public schools, think that Obama and Duncan have been "courageous" in their approach to public education. Duncan is a one-trick pony who believes that fires are best put out with gasoline. But Coach Williams’s comments are telling, too. His belief that "they’ve made millions of dollars….They didn’t have their degree but it all depends how you measure success in your life" reveals far more than Williams intended. It’s the bluntest admission by a coach that I’ve ever read that college sports is little more than a minor league for the pros and any pretension that these are actually "student-athletes" is only for people who believe in unicorns and pixies. There is a reason NBA Commissioner David Stern wants players to have to wait a year in college before they can come to the pros. It’s not, as he says so they can "mature." It’s so they can build their brand and whet the appetite of the basketball-watching public. And it doesn’t cost the NBA a dime.

Gary Williams and his defenders could certainly argue that other students view college the same way: as a means to an end to get a job and make money. That’s just twenty-first-century reality. But in theory educators are supposed to be steering young minds a different direction. Clearly, Gary Williams doesn’t see himself as that kind of an educator. That’s fine. I’m sure he’s not alone among the fraternity of coaches. But then let’s drop all the pretense of amateurism and student athletics. These "amateurs" are playing in a tournament where they are the content for a $6 billion television contract. They wear sneakers that enrich their coaches and athletic departments. The NCAA then owns their image in perpetuity, selling it for use in video games, advertisements and other assorted merchandise. Everyone gets paid except for them, and the NCAA is facing a steadily advancing lawsuit by former NCAA All-American Ed O’Bannon on this very question. If the goal is not to graduate but just to "make millions," then let’s lose the charade and pay them some kind of a stipend for their labors. Arne Duncan can moralize all he wants about the "educational mission" of these schools–but no one is watching to find out Kentucky star John Wall’s major. This is about high-octane entertainment. But it’s also predicated on the most basic and fundamental American injustice: free labor. That is the true madness of March.

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