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NCAA ban of 15 HBCU teams from postseason play is polite racism

If regulators looked honestly at the academic progress of black athletes, major Division I programs would be censured too

At best, it is patronizing. At worst, it is polite racism. The National Collegiate Athletic Association last month released the list of 17 Division I sports teams that face postseason bans for the 2017-18 school year because of low graduation rates.

As in the past, the list was utterly dominated by historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which accounted for 15 of the 17 squads. Alabama A&M and Southern University each had four teams banned. Grambling had three, Savannah State had two, and Howard and Morgan State each had one team knocked out. The only non-HBCU teams banned were the Southeast Missouri State men’s basketball team and the Illinois-Chicago men’s cross-country team.

In keeping with its penchant for protecting the image of the so-called “student-athlete,” the NCAA sugarcoated the bans to the sweetest degree possible. The 15 HBCU teams banned were less than last year’s 22. The NCAA’s press release on this improvement centered on Southern, which had nine teams banned last year. Praising how his athletes weathered the bans, Southern athletic director Roman Banks told the NCAA:

“They pulled their pants on, put their shirt on and came back to work to help lead us out of this process. They still won basketball games and football games and track meets. They gave me a lot of motivation. They’ve been so resilient. … We can’t fail the student-athletes anymore. We must do everything in our power to give them a chance to come to Southern to get an education and be the best they can be in their sport. That’s our mission.”

Seconding that mission was Southern’s associate athletic director for institutional compliance, Trayvean Scott. “We’re trying to be the model of how to get out of infractions,” Scott said. “You don’t just fold the tent and run. You are accountable, regardless of whether you were there when they happened or not.”

The NCAA still runs from demanding full accountability from majority-white Division I sports programs. Even though public pressure has forced most universities to work harder to keep athletes in the classroom, the NCAA still refuses to sanction schools that fool the system with overall graduation rates that appear acceptable but harbor vast and unacceptable disparities between white and black players.

In an Undefeated commentary during the last football bowl season, I cited 24 big-time men’s basketball and football programs that have African-American graduation rates under 50 percent. But that list is hardly exhaustive. If you include not-so-big-time Division I programs, the landscape is littered with many more schools from California to Florida that are below 50 percent for African-American athletes in either men’s basketball or football or women’s track.

Such schools include East Tennessee State, Tennessee Chattanooga, University of California Santa Barbara, University of California Riverside, Kennesaw State, Florida Gulf Coast, Indiana State, Southern Illinois, Liberty, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Eastern Kentucky, Moorhead State and Southeast Missouri State.

At Southern, Scott said, according to the NCAA press release, “I had to have some honest conversations with leadership. Sitting across from a coach and talking about what’s going on with the whole athletics department and how to fix his individual program … it’s difficult.” Banks said, “I’m driven to make Southern the best it can be from a holistic side, not just through basketball. From where we came from, if we stay on this path, we’re on the right one.”

Good for the Southern staff to not take sanctions lying down. But it is hypocritical, almost plantationlike, for the NCAA to demand such holistic improvement from historically black colleges when teams representing predominantly white colleges and universities fear no penalties for grossly disparate academic performance. The postseason bans were based on a team’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), a rough predictor of a 50 percent graduation rate. But while the NCAA has racial breakdowns for its Graduation Success Rates, it does not provide racial breakdowns on its website for APRs.

So why the difference?

In last season’s NCAA basketball tournament, nine men’s teams played for the national championship with black graduation rates under 50 percent. The NCAA shows no sign of cracking down on the likes of UCLA, Oklahoma State and Northern Kentucky, which were at the bottom of the list with respective rates of 17 percent, 25 percent and 29 percent for black basketball players. The respective white graduation rates for those three teams were 80 percent, 100 percent and 71 percent.

The notion that UCLA and Oklahoma State took the court with respective graduation rate disparities of 63 percentage points and 75 percentage points tells you how much more work the NCAA needs to do. For now, it pats less-resourced HBCUs on the head for hard work, all but saying, “Good boy,” while the bad boys at predominantly white universities display utter disinterest in graduating their African-American players.

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.