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Losing to Win in College Sports

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At the height of March Madness, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted the true madness of the NCAA men's basketball tournament: 10 of the 68 teams that competed are not on track to graduate half their players. Is it fair, he asked, to reward teams with millions of dollars for their athletic feats when their players lag so far behind academically?

While I agree wholeheartedly with Duncan's call for raising the academic bar for post-season play, I think it is important to add another element to his call for action. We also need to take into account the growing disparity between black and white athletes, which is big and getting bigger.

According to a newly released study, 91 percent of white basketball players on 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament Teams graduated last year, while only 59 percent of their black counterparts earned their college degree -- a 32 percent gap. Furthermore, this is the third straight year the disparity has increased.

This persistent and widening gap raises a number of questions.

To what extent are universities willing to sacrifice academic integrity in return for athletic prowess? Given the huge sums of money generated by men's basketball, does the graduation gap raise the specter of exploitation of African American athletes? Perhaps more importantly, what steps are academic institutions taking to assist all of their athletes in taking full advantage of the educational opportunities implicit in their athletic scholarships?

While there are no easy answers to these questions, acknowledging them is an important first step. That's why we are gathering an unprecedented team of athletes, sports journalists, academics and other experts to discuss issues related to race and intercollegiate sports at this week's Losing to Win Conference at Wake Forest University.

Richard Lapchick, author of the report on graduation rates, will be a featured speaker. Also on the agenda is Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission, which recently chronicled how the NCAA tournament revenue formula is designed to reward success on the court without regard for what happens in the classroom.

A host of other experts will be on hand to discuss topics ranging from pay for play to recruiting violations. We'll be looking at how race intersects the many issues that come into play in college sports.

Rather than ignoring these issues until March rolls around again, we wanted to start a national conversation on these vital topics as soon as the final whistle blew on this year's NCAA tournament. We've launched a blog to coincide with the conference opening so that people from around the nation can weigh in and offer their insights. The blog is designed to continue the conversation long after the conference ends.

Fortunately, not all of the news is bad when it comes to race and intercollegiate sports. We cannot ignore the fact that athletics scholarships provide educational opportunities for a wide swath of the population that might not otherwise have the opportunity for higher education.

It's also important to avoid stereotyping. Many African American athletes are up to the academic charge and succeed both on and off the court. Given the significant time commitment required to participate at such high levels of collegiate sports, their academic accomplishments are all the more impressive.

But the fact remains that we are failing far too many of our African American athletes by depriving them of the college education that athletic scholarships were designed to provide. The fact that the NCAA is standing firm in its commitment to ban pay for play removes another potential benefit for these young athletes.

I applaud Secretary Duncan for putting the national spotlight on the controversial issue of athletes' graduation rates. But let's not forget about the very players who are generating so much of the excitement and income associated with March Madness.

Wake Forest University School of Law Professor Timothy Davis is the co-author of a casebook on sports law and The Business of Sports Agents, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Davis serves on the Review Board for the United States Anti-Doping Agency and is a member of the Board of Advisors for the National Sports Law Institute and the Sports Lawyers Association.