PHILADELPHIA – Young black men playing basketball and football for the country's top college teams are graduating at lower rates than black male students at the same schools — despite having financial and academic support that removes common hurdles preventing many undergraduates from earning a degree, a new report has found.
While 58 percent of black male undergraduates at the 65 schools in the Power 5 conferences got degrees within six years, 54 percent of black male student-athletes at the same schools graduated, according to an analysis of the 2014-2015 academic year by University of Pennsylvania researcher Shaun Harper.
Harper said the graduation gap represents a wide, systemic issue worse than isolated scandals seen on individual campuses.
"It happens just about everywhere," said Harper, director of Penn's Center for Race and Equity in Education. "Generations of young black men and their parents and families are repeatedly duped by a system that lies to them about what their life chances are and what their athletic outcomes are likely to be."
Just as the attention of the sports world shifts to March Madness, the home page for the NCAA's website features data on how few student-athletes are drafted to play professional sports, promoting its efforts to educate college players. The NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments begin this week.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida also published a study this week on graduation rates for black men's basketball players at NCAA Tournament schools. The 68 teams this year had a graduation rate for black athletes of 75 percent, compared with 69 percent for the teams last year. The same schools had graduation rates of 93 percent for white men each year, the study said.
Richard Lapchick, the institute's director, told The Associated Press that problems with K-12 education are part of the disparity between black and white athletes.
"In urban areas ... the ability for a student to be fully prepared for college by the time of their senior year of high school is seriously compromised," Lapchick said. "It's not just an answer of the colleges. It's how we look at American education in general."
Lapchick's report notes 11 teams in the 2016 men's field have graduation rates of 100 percent: Butler, Holy Cross, Duke, Middle Tennessee, Dayton, Iowa, Kansas, Notre Dame, Texas, Villanova and Weber State.
According to estimated data from the NCAA, only 1.2 percent of college men's basketball players are drafted by the NBA and only 1.6 percent of college football players are drafted by the NFL.
"Although there is a great deal of interest in basketball this time of year, we think it is important to remind fans of what our mission is — to provide student-athletes educational opportunities that will last a lifetime," Bob Williams, NCAA senior vice president of communications, said in a statement to the AP.
The NCAA also said graduation rates rose 13 percentage points in football and 15 percentage points in basketball for black student-athletes at all Division I programs between 1995 and 2005.
A recent NCAA report on graduation data shows the graduation rate for black male players at all Division I basketball programs was 72 percent for the class that started in 2008. For football, the rate was 69 percent. On its website, the NCAA says graduation rates are higher than ever, and 15 percent of student-athletes say they wouldn't be in college without sports.
But the numbers don't hold up when looking at the NCAA's main revenue-generating sports at elite programs.
"When coaches are looking for the best athletic talent, that's what they're looking for," Harper said. "They're not really concerned with academic talent."
Harry Swayne, who played football at Rutgers University for four years before a 14-year NFL career from 1987 to 2001, said he saw the shift in mentality from the idea of college as a path to education to a pipeline to a professional sports career.
"Statistically, more than likely, they won't make it," Swayne said. "We don't want to talk them out of their dreams; we just want to give them some reality, too. We want to introduce them to some other possibilities for when football is over, because it is coming to an end sooner than they think and sooner than they're ready for."
Harper said the solution is less likely to come from colleges than parents whose children are being recruited. He encouraged families to ask coaches about their overall student-athlete experience before committing to schools.
"Sometimes, young men get so excited about the prospect of playing for a particular place and coach," Harper said. "We're going to have to see more student activism, where black players say, 'You're going to graduate me, or I'm not going to play for you.'"
AP sports writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports: https://www.gse.upenn.edu/equity/sports2016
UCF Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport report on men's basketball tournament teams: http://bit.ly/1YWErNZ