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Low Graduation Rates Among Black Athletes


March Madness is dominating the college sports headlines this week. Less noticed is this. Black athletes are dropping out of colleges across the country at alarming rates. That's according to the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. The study calls it a graduation gap and a systemic issue, not just a few scandals at certain schools. With us to talk about these findings is Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone. We reached him on Skype. Good morning.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Good morning, how are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. What is new that you found in this study?

BLACKISTONE: Well, this is Shaun Harper's study, and he points out that on major college campuses across the country, black males make up less than 3 percent of undergraduate enrollments. Yet, when you look at their numbers or percentages on the revenue-generating sports teams of football and men's basketball, they make up well into 50 and 60 percent of those teams. So the idea is that they are really there to be part of the revenue-generating working class of athlete on campus and not necessarily there to be part of the educating class as most everyone else is.

MONTAGNE: When you say any other demographic group - in fact, I think the numbers are something like, at those 65 schools, just barely more than half of the black male athletes graduate at all.

BLACKISTONE: Exactly. And what's really insidious about this is these athletes are supposedly promised at least one thing as remuneration for all their blood and sweat. And that is a college degree, which can be a transformative tool in our society when you talk about upward mobility. And that's really the troubling part about this.

MONTAGNE: Well, this has been talked about so much, really, in recent years. Why hasn't it changed?

BLACKISTONE: Well, I think one of the reasons it hasn't changed is because there's really no economic pressure to change this. All of the incentive is really on winning and not losing on the field or on the court. Coaches are not necessarily incentivized to graduate players.

MONTAGNE: You know, one last thing - which is worth keeping uppermost in our minds - are the staggering figures, the money that's involved. Just give us a quick reminder of what we're talking about here.

BLACKISTONE: Well, we're talking about a $10 billion contract that NCAA basketball signed with broadcasters several years ago to broadcast all these games that we're going to love to watch over the next three weeks and that the conference commissioners of the power five conferences in this country, those five guys make on average $2.8 million a year in salary. And then you look at the coaches and the multimillion dollar contracts they have to coach. And you look at the staffs. And then you look at the student fees that go along to support some of the athletic activities at colleges across the country. It's a whole lot of money. And at the very least, it seems that these black male college athletes, who produce most of this revenue, should get more from it or certainly get the guarantee of their college scholarship so that they have something when they get out of school.

MONTAGNE: Kevin Blackistone teaches sports journalism at the University of Maryland. He is also a sports columnist at The Washington Post. Thank you very much for joining us.

BLACKISTONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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