Is Winning Everything? Academic Underperformance of Male African-American Athletes Is the Underside of Stellar On-Court Performance of Kentucky Wildcats

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A student's performance on the basketball court undeniably brings money into the coffers of many schools. At the same time, too many of the athletes, particularly Black student-athletes, are underperforming academically and are at risk of losing their NCAA eligibility and, more importantly, failing in college overall.

When the University of Kentucky Wildcats won the NCCA Division I Basketball Championship this spring, the victory did more than put another big trophy in the showcase of the venerable intercollegiate sports powerhouse. It helped ensure the financial outlook for what has become a phenomenal, and oft-times controversial, money-making machine for all involved.

Days after the final buzzer of the NCAA championship game went silent, the entire Wildcats starting lineup--three freshmen and two sophomores--said they were entering the June draft of the National Basketball Association (NBA). So did senior Darius Miller.

In 2010, freshman John Wall left Kentucky after one season, and went on to sign a three-year deal with the Washington Wizards worth $16.59 million. When asked if he thought Wall would return for his sophomore season, Calipari said, "He better not be."

It is not that Calipari would not have welcomed his freshman guard back for another season, he just did not feel the move would have been advantageous to his player.

"I am saying that if he came to me and he was the No. 1 pick in the draft and he said that he wanted to come back, we would probably be wrestling around on the floor," Calipari said on the "Dan Patrick Show" in 2010. "Because there is no reason other than me trying to win more games that he should come back."

It seems that Kentucky didn't miss a beat after Wall left, as though the Wildcats lost in the Final Four to the University of Connecticut in 2011, they went on to win the national championship the following year. Following the championship win, Calipari was advised by Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart that he and two assistants were having their contracts boosted. Calipari was getting an 8.3 percent increase in his salary over the remaining seven years of his contract. With base salary, sponsor endorsements and bonuses, Calipari's annual pay would be raised to at least $5.2 million annually.

The big win boosted Kentucky's apparel and novelty sales (of which the school gets a percentage from vendors under trademark licensing agreements) and guaranteed the university would continue to get a big share of the media rights revenue doled out annually to athletic conferences by the NCAA for March Madness participants. The win also made it easier for Kentucky to keep the 20,000 seat Rupp Arena filled. Wildcat season ticket holders spent an average of $728 per seat last year to see their team's home games.

Leveling the playing field

According to "Keeping Score When It Counts," the annual study of NCAA data on graduation rates and academic achievement, male basketball players on Division I tournament teams had an overall graduation rate of 67 percent in 2011. For Black student-athletes, the graduation rate was a little lower: 60 percent. The rate was 88 percent for their White counterparts.

The study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, or TIDES, based at the University of Central Florida, says the gap found in its most recent study reflects a "continuing large disparity" between the graduation success rate of White basketball players at Division I schools and their Black counterparts.

The gap could widen if star Black student-athletes are unable to meet the increasingly higher academic standards and requirements being imposed by the NCAA, student-advocates say. The NCAA, criticized for years for maintaining unreasonably low academic standards for male student-athletes as a vehicle for keeping athletes on school teams, is under increasing pressure to boost academic standards as a means of addressing the low graduation and academic progress rates for male student-athletes attending Division I institutions. …