U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pushed a proposal Wednesday to bar men's college basketball teams from postseason play if they fail to graduate 40 percent of their players, an idea that didn't go over well with the NCAA and coaches preparing for March Madness.
If put into practice this year, a dozen teams in the NCAA tournament would be ineligible, based on an annual study from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
That includes a No. 1 seed, Kentucky, which graduated 31 percent of its players, according to the institute's latest report.
"Frankly, that's a low bar, and not many teams would be ineligible," Duncan, who played college basketball at Harvard, said on a conference call. "Over time, we should set a higher bar. But it's a minimum, a bright line, which every program should meet to vie for postseason honors."
Duncan emphasized the troubling disparities between graduation rates for black and white players.
The annual report examining the NCAA tournament field found that 45 teams graduated 70 percent or more of their white players, up from 33 teams last year. But only 20 teams graduated at least 70 percent of their black players, the same as last year. Two teams – Maryland and California – graduated none of their black players who started school from 1999 through 2002, Duncan said.
Even so, the study pointed out, graduation rates for black basketball players are 18 percent higher than for male black students who are not athletes.
The men's basketball teams that would barred from postseason play this year if Duncan's idea were adopted: Maryland (8 percent graduation rate), California (20 percent), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (29 percent), Washington (29 percent), Tennessee (30 percent), Kentucky, Baylor (36 percent), Missouri (36 percent), New Mexico State (36 percent), Clemson (37 percent), Georgia Tech (38 percent) and Louisville (38 percent).
Bob Williams, an NCAA spokesman, said the sports governing body shares Duncan's concern about low graduation rates of some tournament teams. But he said the NCAA believes a ban based on graduation rates wrongly penalizes current student-athletes for the academic performances of those who entered as freshman eight to 11 years ago.
The numbers cited Wednesday by Duncan measure six-year graduation rates for the freshman classes that entered college from the 1999-2000 through 2002-03 school years. Schools are not penalized for players who transfer or go to the NBA as long as they are in good academic standing at the time.
For the past six years, the NCAA has used a formula called the Academic Progress Rate that measures factors such as athletes' academic eligibility, progress toward graduation and staying in school. A school faces sanctions if it fails to achieve a certain score for two consecutive years.
So far one school, Centenary, has been banned from Division I postseason basketball under the system. Another three – Georgia Tech, Tennessee and New Mexico State – have lost scholarships, Williams said.
"What we want to do at the end of the day is change behavior so that when people come to college, they have to be prepared to do the work and institutions are prepared to support them academically," Williams said. "We shouldn't measure success by how many teams receive a ban."
Duncan said that while the NCAA has made progress in recent years, it hasn't gone far enough. He said making the postseason is "the prize," and a great motivation. Duncan said he's open to using a different calculation other than older graduation rates if it is "fair, honest and transparent."
Duncan made a similar argument speaking at an NCAA conference earlier this year, but is using the spotlight of the tournament to press his case again. The federal government can't mandate minimum graduation rates for postseason eligibility. That's the NCAA's decision.
Coaches' reactions were largely critical.
"We're going to graduate three seniors on this team, and we're going to have a junior that's going to graduate this year," Kentucky's John Calipari said. "So, academically, I'm all about that."
Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said his program is "disappointed and apologetic in many, many ways to be on that list." He said numbers have improved each year he's been there but "they're not where I want them to be. I want to graduate them all."
However, Pearl also said Duncan should concentrate his efforts on secondary education, saying the real problems lie in under-equipped schools beset with budget issues.
"I share the pain in not having student-athletes graduate," Pearl said. "But I don't want to deny the opportunity to students that aren't prepared. And I'm going to stand up here and I'm going to fight for the student-athletes that come in and aren't as prepared."
Georgetown coach John Thompson III, whose university gets high marks for graduation rates, said Duncan's 40 percent cutoff "sounds harsh. That's just my initial thought. Our responsibility is to help young men grow up. And when you say graduate, what time frame are we talking about? What are the other factors that fall into place? Are we talking about a four-year window, five-year window, 10-year window?"
AP sports writers Dan Gelston, Brett Martel and Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.