Fans of the university of Connecticut men's basketball team, please note: if this is the last March Madness for your Huskies for a while, you'll be wishing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hadn't grown up dribbling on the streets of Chicago. The NCAA passed a rule in October requiring teams to essentially be on track to graduate 50% of their players or lose eligibility for postseason play. Because of UConn's especially low academic progress rate, a complex NCAA metric of more than just graduation stats, the defending national champions aren't invited to next year's big dance.
Duncan, a former hoopster from Harvard, has been pushing for such an incentive system: No books, no ball. He used his bully pulpit to urge university presidents to pass the 50% standard within a matter of months. That's warp speed for the NCAA. "It was so personal," says Duncan, who remembers Chicago college basketball legends who didn't earn degrees and struggled after their playing days. "This was so clear, so fixable, that the fact that it hadn't happened was infuriating to me."
As the wildly popular NCAA men's basketball tournament tips off again, fans might have to start paying more attention to the academic performance of the teams in their brackets. The 50% rule will be fully phased in over the next four years. UConn's record isn't the only academic air ball. Others need to shape up too. If the new standard had been in play this season, schools like Syracuse, Indiana and Florida State would have been benched. "The fact that universities that aren't taking the academic side of this seriously will now be prohibited from playing--that sends a hell of a strong message," says Duncan.
Will the rule really make schoolwork a priority in big-time college sports? "As an academic, I don't see a 50% graduation rate as successful," says Jason Lanter, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania's Kutztown University and the president of the Drake Group, a college-sports-reform organization. (Players who turn pro while in good academic standing don't count as having dropped out.) And no metric can measure the quality and rigor of the academic training an athlete receives. "Saying someone graduated is different from saying that someone got equal access to an education," says Richard Southall, a University of North Carolina sports-administration professor, who notes that players on the most successful NCAA tournament teams can miss two to three weeks of class time.
Duncan is not enamored with the 50% mark. "Frankly, 50% is a low bar," he says. "But at least it's a starting point. Over time, it should be ratcheted up." And maybe players' grades will deliver more March cheers.