Sandra Bullock and the blind side of NCAA March Madness

A movie like "The Blind Side," with Sandra Bullock and depicting a real scholar-athlete, has a lesson for the NCAA in this March Madness: Get the graduation rates up for players, especially blacks. Otherwise, Uncle Sam may be on your case.

Sandra Bullock and her movie “The Blind Side” have something to teach the NCAA during its 2010 Division I men’s basketball tournament – or March Madness.

The lesson: Even the least-educated athlete recruited by a college – like the real-life and once-homeless Michael Oher depicted in “The Blind Side” – can become both a great student as well as a great team player.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association still has far to go in its effort to make sure the words “scholar athlete” ring true in men’s basketball. A prime example: A No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament, the University of Kentucky, recently had a 31 percent graduation rate for all its players (and 18 percent for black players).

The NCAA’s new system bars a team from postseason competition if it fails to meet a minimum score in athletes’ grades and graduation rates. But the system doesn’t go far enough, according to US Education Secretary Arne Duncan. A former Ivy League and professional basketball player, Mr. Duncan wants the NCAA to raise its bar high on graduation-success rates. In recent years, he says, 1 out of 5 men’s teams has graduated less than 40 percent of their players.

He would not be speaking out unless he had a whip to crack: the threat of the government withdrawing the tax-free status of offending schools or the antitrust exemption for the NCAA.

The worst part of the NCAA’s record is the graduation gap between blacks and whites. For many teams, the discrepancy has been as high as 60 percent, with some schools graduating less than 20 percent of their black players. (NCAA women’s basketball does much better at overall rates and in the black-white ratio.)

The commercial aspect of March Madness puts pressure on schools to often neglect a player’s scholastics. Not only are schools drawn to the NCAA money from the sale of media rights, but they also find that a winning sports program can drive more high school students to apply.

Graduation rates aren’t the only way to help players perform in class as well as on the court. The NCAA needs to seriously consider whether freshmen should be barred from playing in order to allow them to first get their academic grounding. Another idea: mandated summer school for players falling short.

Many schools have shown that success in the classroom is possible for basketball players. Among them: Brighan Young University, Marquette, Notre Dame, Utah State, Wake Forest, Wofford, Duke, Lehigh, Vermont, and Villanova.

Now the NCAA needs to bring up the laggards – before the federal government makes them do it.

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