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Graduation rate for black players in bowl games gets better, but still not good enough

Georgia, playing in the national title game, has a poor record compared with other FBS schools

In November 2017, the NCAA proudly announced that African-American Graduation Success Rates (GSR) in Division I sports hit an all-time high of 77 percent. The average black GSR for Football Bowl Subdivision teams was 73 percent, up 20 percentage points since 2002.

“Student-athletes are reaching their academic goals and earning degrees at record rates,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said. “The dramatic improvement in the graduation rate for African-American student-athletes in all sports is a significant achievement.”

Significant, yes. Sufficient, no.

The progress, as I have been charting for 22 years in my Graduation Gap Bowl, is welcome. But again, as always, the NCAA remains silent on the final frontier: disparities.

Let me be clear and charitable. The graduation landscape is far different and more positive than two decades ago. In 2001, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics after many years recommended that sports programs that did not have at least a 50 percent graduation rate be ineligible for postseason play. I long have said there should also be a 50 percent standard specifically for black athletes in football and basketball, given how they are the backbone of so many programs and because of the long history of colleges exploiting them for prestige and financial gain while spitting them out without degrees.

The NCAA slowly but inevitably adopted the spirit of the 50 percent overall team rates. Then it took a long time for schools to take the recommendations seriously.

For instance, in my report for the 2008-09 bowl games, five of the top 10 teams in the-then Bowl Championship Series games — Oklahoma, Ohio State, Texas, Alabama and Utah — had black graduation rates of under 50 percent and an average racial gap of about 30 percentage points between the lower ones of the black players and the higher ones of the white players. In my 2010-11 Gap Bowl, there were 17 out of 70 teams that should have been disqualified for team or African-American graduation rates under 50 percent.

This year, out of 80 bowl teams, only two would be disqualified. On the surface, this should be great.

But the one renegade happens to be Georgia, one of the two teams playing for the national championship. The Bulldogs have only a 44 percent black GSR and a gap of 29 percentage points from the 73 percent of its white players. The other school under 50 percent for black players is Oklahoma State.

That sets a nagging tone for much of the rest of the bowl field. Of the 80 teams, 46 have black GSR gaps at least 15 points lower than those for white players. Of the top 10 ranked teams, only two, Wisconsin and Miami, had gaps under 15 percent (with Miami graduating 89 percent of its black players). Ohio State, Penn State, Oklahoma and Southern California had gaps of between 23 and 26 percentage points.

This presents a challenge because of modern institutional racism. Football fans might (and do) ask what problem anyone could possibly have with Alabama and Clemson graduating a respective 81 percent and 79 percent of its black players. But when Clemson and Alabama are at a respective 100 percent and 95 percent for white players, it is progress that still lags behind white players. Any declaration that the work is over is premature patronization of black athletes — and, by extension, black people.

The maintenance of such gaps by teams at the top of a sport seduces other institutions to do worse. The worst gaps of between 30 and 47 percentage points are held by Ohio, Michigan State, Western Kentucky, Texas A&M, Louisiana Tech, Central Michigan and Washington State.

So separate worlds of excellence remain the rule in the NCAA. Only 15 of the 80 bowl schools practice equity at a level where black and white athletes have graduation rates of at least 80 percent and gaps of less than 15 percentage points. Those schools are Wake Forest, Mississippi State, UCLA, Missouri, Stanford, Notre Dame, Boise State, Army, Miami, Northwestern, Michigan, South Carolina, Duke, Central Florida and Utah State.

Below them is a world of higher achievers with major gaps, such as the aforementioned Clemson and Alabama and most other schools that have crossed the 50 percent mark for black graduation rates but also have white graduation rates that are much higher.

There also remains the taint of rigor, even when rates are high. The well of integrity continues to be poisoned by the likes of North Carolina, which escaped NCAA penalties last fall despite admitting to a long-running academic scandal of barely existing African and African-American studies classes, where about half of the 3,100 enrollees were athletes.

That helps create a national bottom line of expectations. There are 10 bowl teams with a 100 percent graduation rate for white players, but none for black players. There are 50 bowl teams with white graduation rates of at least 80 percent. Only 18 teams have such rates for black players.

When the NCAA announced its record graduation rates for black players, it said that nearly 23,000 more student-athletes graduated since 2002 than would have without its reforms. The question now ought to be, how many more thousands of black athletes would have graduated and how many more will graduate if universities practiced equity. We will never know, unless the public and NCAA demand it.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Pulitzer finalist, 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for his work for The Undefeated. He co-authored Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.