IF, LIKE ME, you try to balance your sports fanaticism with something of a social conscience, this is a bittersweet time. I grew up a Philly hoopster, struck at an early age by the romanticism of Big Five basketball. Trips to the Palestra were captivating because of the raw emotion inside that sweatbox of a gym; I still remember how, when fans tired of screaming, they unfurled long scrolls of paper bearing clever put-downs, like NIXON IS A QUAKER, introduced at the height of the former president's ignominy during a game when Penn's Quakers were on a fast-breaking roll. Then there was my favorite, the one that took a potshot at one villainous Villanova gunner: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHRIS FORD AND A DEAD BABY? A DEAD BABY DOESN'T SUCK.
It was all emotion, all the time, and when March Madness rolls around every year, there it is again, decades later, on our TV screens: the tense moments, the crying cheerleaders, the blood vessel-popping coaches. I love it. And yet I'm an adult now, and I'm aware of the world beyond the game, and a little part of me resents the private moral concession my fandom has had to make. The truth is, the ads of the NCAA Tournament target me - which makes me complicit in the sham that is college athletics and the farce that is the phrase "student-athlete."
That's why I'm taking a cue from my outspoken friend (and, God help us all, role model) Charles Barkley, who has always sought to balance his fanaticism with a vision of the world beyond the insular orbit of sports. Charles' network, Turner Broadcasting, joined with CBS to pay $11 million for the rights to televise the tournament. The irrepressible Charles will be broadcasting the games, which led him to speak out last week.
"I'm concerned about the NCAA not graduating these players," he said. "They aren't paying the players. I'm not going to go on a rant about where the money goes, but you have an obligation to graduate these players."
According to a study released last year by the College Sports Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, the graduation rate for NCAA Division I men's basketball players is 20 percent less than the national average for full-time male students. Division I basketball is big business. Many athletic departments have budgets in excess of $100 million and are effectively separate, self-sustaining entities on otherwise academic campuses. They take the money, yet graduation rates have long been abysmal - a trend that disproportionately affects black athletes.
That's why, this year, starting today, this newspaper will print each team's graduation rate in our tournament bracket, (click for bracket.pdf) right next to the team's won-loss record. Check it out on Page 40. (We're going with the data compiled by Dr. Richard Lapchick, at the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, because the NCAA's own data hasn't always taken into account transfer students and those leaving school for the NBA). I challenge other media outlets to do the same. The University of Arizona should be publicly shamed for its 20 percent graduation rate, just as Villanova should be widely praised for its rate of 100 percent. Temple also has some work to do, having graduated just one-third of its players.
Last year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan - himself something of a baller, as he demonstrated at the NBA celebrity all-star game this season - proposed that any team that graduates fewer than 40 percent of its players be ineligible for postseason play.
"If a team fails to graduate two out of five players, how serious are the institution and coach about their players' academic success and preparing their student-athletes for life?" he wrote.
Seven of the 68 teams in this year's tournament would have failed to qualify under Duncan's rule; last year, 12 of 65 would have been ineligible. Nothing has yet come of Duncan's idea.
I love March Madness. But I'd like to see Duncan's proposal become law, because it would be nice if the teams who inspire all that emotion in me didn't make me feel like I need to shower when I read about how their schools are exploiting players. It would be nice if all schools cared about their mission as much as Villanova, and as much as sports' most unlikely arbiter of moral values, Sir Charles.