Dec 052012

Published: December 5, 2012

Winning football by degrees

By Rick Martinez

If you want to improve the chances of your son or grandson earning a college degree, encourage him to play football.

It turns out that football players for the 70 Division I universities headed to a bowl game (and, yes, that includes my beloved Duke Blue Devils) have a higher graduation rate than their non-athlete male peers. According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, the graduation rate for African-American football players is 62 percent, compared with 38 percent for black male students as a whole. For whites, the graduation rate is 82 percent for football players, 63 percent for white men overall.

The study also destroys the myth that high-quality football and academics are incompatible. Top ranked, undefeated Notre Dame is also No. 1 in the classroom. The Irish players have earned a 97 percent overall graduation rate. If the BCS championship game participants were selected on classroom performance, Notre Dame would be playing Northwestern, which also has a 97 percent graduation rate among football players.

Even more remarkable is the 100 percent graduation rate among Notre Dame’s African-American players. Rice University is the only other school playing in a bowl this year with a 100 percent graduation rate among black players.

Despite this accomplishment, social science academics see gloom and doom in the numbers.

In an interview with CBS News, Richard Lapchik, director of TIDES, lamented the 20-point graduation rate gap between white (82 percent) and black (62 percent) players on bowl-bound teams. An even harsher indictment of higher education’s treatment of African-American athletes was delivered Monday by Shaun Harper of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Harper’s study looked at all sports, and concluded that black athletes are faring more poorly than their non-athlete black peers.

Lapchik and Harper conclude we need to boost African-American academic success with more programs, and who can argue with that?

It’s tempting to conclude that private, bowl-bound schools like Notre Dame, Rice, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford and Vanderbilt have an academic advantage, particularly when it comes to African-American athletes, because they are highly selective. That may be a factor, but it doesn’t explain the success of public universities like Rutgers, which boasts a 90 percent graduation rate among African-American football players.

Then there are football powerhouses Louisiana State and Florida, which graduate 75 percent or more of their black players.

The control a public university has over athletes’ academic outcomes is clearly on display in South Carolina. Both the University of South Carolina and Clemson are publicly funded universities, and each possesses a perennial top 25 football program. Yet South Carolina graduates only 52 percent of its white football players and a paltry 32 percent of its black players.

Clemson, on the other hand, has a 100 percent graduation rate among its white players and a 73 percent rate among its African-American players. The realistic conclusion is that academics are taken more seriously at Clemson.

I hope Debbie Yow, athletic director at N.C. State University, factored in this type of data when she hired Northern Illinois University football coach Dave Doeren. Sure, he’s had a remarkable on-the-field record, 23-4, during his two years at NIU, but the Huskies’ academic performance is equally impressive.

The NIU football team has a 79 percent graduation rate among its black players. More than nine out of 10 of its white players – 93 percent – earn a degree.

That compares with a 51 percent graduation rate among N.C. State’s black football players and an 89 percent rate among its white players. Let’s hope Yow included an incentive in Doeren’s contract to bring State up to NIU’s classroom performance.

The bowl team results are clear. A football uniform and a cap and gown can fit nicely on the same person.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez ( is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and

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