Editor’s note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer of racialism, sports expert, scholar and author.
As we approach the end of 2020, a year that will be remembered for being full of challenges, the effort and commitment that so many showed to complete another college football season was extraordinary. Traditionally, over the last decade, we have seen up to 70 teams selected to participate in bowling games at the end of the season. However, in a year with so many traditions changing, 56 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams each accepted an invitation to participate in one of college footballs 28 bowl games. With health and safety for all involved a top priority, student-athletes from these bowl-bound teams will play one last game representing their respective universities on a national stage.
However, we must not forget that many of these student-athletes enrolled in colleges and universities who intend to pursue a degree in hopes of graduating and joining the workforce when their football careers end.
“The global pandemic has further revealed differences in our world that have been around for years,” Pastor Pastor Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, shared with me. “This includes the unfortunate gap in academic achievement and sustainability among our student-athletes. … Student-athletes must succeed as STUDENTS, not just as athletes. Since less than 2% of these gifted young people will ever reach it to the professional ranks “We must prepare them for success both on and off the pitch. The message must be sent to our collegiate leadership and tell them that Black EDUCATION Matters!”
For those athletes who are lucky enough to make it to the NFL, their careers last, on average, less than four years. Universities therefore have a responsibility to prepare their students for the exam and to promote an environment that adequately enables them to have the necessary skills to thrive in the workforce after graduation. University leaders, including head coaches, must emphasize the importance of receiving an education. Otherwise, the term “student” used in the ubiquitous phrase “student-athlete” may be in doubt.
On Tuesday, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its “Keep score when it counts: Evaluation of academic records for Bowl-Bound College football teams 2020-2021. “The annual report includes football student-athlete Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and Academic Progress Rate (APR) for bowl-bound teams. The overall GSR for bowl-bound teams this year was 78.0%, down from 79.1% in 2019. The average GSR for student-athletes in black football decreased slightly, from 73.8% in 2019 to 73.4% in 2020, and the difference between the graduation rate for white and black student-athletes increased from 15.6% to 16.3 % over the same span.
This is the first time that the overall football student-athlete GSR has fallen from the previous year since the statistics were first reported in bowl-bound report from 2009. After a decade of uninterrupted progress, this was a disappointing break. However, it is worth noting that the current GSR is significantly higher than when the streak started. The total football student-athlete GSR in 2009 was 65.5, a full 12.5 percentage points below where it is in 2020.
In 2003, the NCAA introduced the APR as part of an academic reform package designed to more accurately measure students ‘athletes’ academic success in addition to increasing graduation rates at member institutions. APR holds each team responsible for the success of student-athletes in the classroom and their progress toward the exam. Teams are penalized if they fall below the minimum limit for an APR score of 930, which is the expected rating of 50% of a team of student athletes. The last time a bowl-eligible team did not meet the minimum requirement for April was four years ago.
All the bowl-bound schools in 2020 had an APR that was higher than the required minimum of 930, which continued a positive trend back to 2018. The average APR for the bowl-bound schools in 2020 was 968 compared to 971 in 2019. The four teams that fought for the national championship – University of Alabama, Clemson University, Ohio State University and University of Notre Dame – has April at 990, 993, 985 and 970 respectively. Clemson’s and Alabama’s APRs were among the top 10 out of the 56 bowl – bound teams, and all four schools were above the bowl-bound average.
Until this year, there had been a steady improvement in APR and GSR scores as the gap between black students and white students had narrowed. However, as previously mentioned, the average GSR for black football student-athletes is 73.4%, down from 73.8% in 2019. In addition, the average GSR for white football student-athletes is 89.7%, up from 89.4% in 2019 , increasing the difference between black and white football student-athletes to 16.3%. For the second time in three years, this gap has widened. These negative trends are worrying and there is ample room for concentrated action to ensure that black student-athletes can have as equal a chance of success as their white counterparts.
There are many reasons that continue to contribute to this difference, one of which is the lack of access to similar educational resources. Even in 2020, we will see certain school districts in areas that are predominantly black that remain underfunded and lack the technology available in full-resource school districts.
By 2020, 39.3% of schools (22 in total) had GSRs for black soccer student-athletes that were at least 20 percentage points lower than the rates for white soccer student-athletes, down from 41% in the 2019 survey. One school, Louisiana Tech, has a gap of more than 40%. This is clearly unacceptable and needs to be addressed.
Every year I ask the question: How can we tackle this gap in the graduation rate between black and white football student-athletes? Institutions are responsible for providing the necessary academic support to enable student-athletes to succeed. The responsibility lies with the student-athlete to be diligent in the classroom, for the admissions offices to accept students who have a reasonable chance of success at their respective institutions, and for the student-athlete support system to provide the necessary assistance to secure the student – athlete completes their educational goals. Athletic departments must prioritize providing the best possible student athletic experience, and this starts with promoting off-track success.
Arne Duncan, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education from 2009 to 2015 and is now chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, has consistently addressed differences in the quality of education found in urban and rural schools, particularly noting how segregated housing is. can result in separate schools. He has been an advocate for the improvement of public education, especially in urban areas, and believes that higher education institutions should be kept to higher standards. “This is especially true,” he said, “in urban areas where segregation of housing is a huge roadblock to justice in education.”
And as I have called for in previous years, I continue to maintain that the minimum requirement for APR must be raised to predict a minimum threshold of 60% for the GSR metric. In 2020 none bowl-bound teams were below a 60% GSR, and 17 teams did not reach an APR of 960. In addition, 47 of the 56 bowl-bound teams graduated at least 70% of their students’ athletes. The 50% standard is simply too low.
In typical years, toast games, in particular College Football Playoffs, has lucrative payouts to participating schools. These payouts are distributed to the represented conferences and then distributed to each institution that meets the NCAA’s APR measure for participation in a post-season game. Often, funding for schools goes in the direction of initiatives such as improving sports facilities or recruiting. The NCAA should consider implementing measures that dictate part of the revenue distribution toward academic development in addition to these athletic-driven initiatives.
As we move toward 2021, a decision by the NCAA is about its name, image and similarity rule likely to be made. In January, the NCAA’s board plan is scheduled to vote on a proposal that, if approved, will allow student-athletes to take advantage of endorsements. However, a decision on how compensation will work awaits a federal solution. The NCAA will need to continue to emphasize the importance of academic success in these changing circumstances as the financial opportunities for student-athletes shift.
Despite the great economic consequences of collegial football, we must remind ourselves that the “student” in the “student-athlete” comes first for a reason. Athletic scholarships are powerful tools that provide opportunities to receive a valuable education. In addition, access to high-quality education can be one of the most effective means of overcoming barriers to upward mobility for today’s poor societies. Academic and athletic leaders have a responsibility to prepare their students for the exam and equip them with the skills to succeed in their respective communities and workforces. It is possible to adopt changes, but it will require a concerted effort from all parties involved. For the first time, part of Division I revenue was distributed to schools based on the academic success of student athletes in the academy 2019-2020. This is a good step for the NCAA and one that reminds us all of the importance of off-court results.
As athletes become “athlete activists”, they focus more on the effects of systemic racism in society and hopefully they will turn their attention to the impact on higher education and university sports. They will have a real impact on their campuses if they focus on hiring practices. As the race inventory in 2020 has shown, there is much more to be done to ensure equal opportunities for educational opportunities, also for student-athletes.
Kyle Richardson made significant contributions to this column.
Richard E. Lapchick is President of the DeVos Sports Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also heads the UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sports. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick oned den Facebook.