LGHL Discusses The NCAA And Academics With Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings discusses the NCAA's forthcoming GPA minimum requirement changes plus other issues impacting college sports' governing body.

My article last week on the NCAA's changes in academic standards generated a lot of discussion and some smart questions. In order to dig a little deeper on the implications of these changes, I thought it would be helpful to hear from an educational expert. Fortunately, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings at the University of Wisconsin agreed to answer a few of my questions via email. Dr. Ladson-Billings is not only one of the premier voices on education today (particularly in regards to critical race theory and urban education), but she's also famous among academics for being a huge sports fan, as she is married to a former NFL player, and the mother of a former Oregon State player.

Dr. Ladson-Billings takes our questions on the scope of the NCAA, graduation rates, and helping student athletes below.

LGHL: For the 2016 class, the NCAA will be requiring incoming freshman to carry a 2.3 GPA in their HS core subjects (up from 2.0), and that 10 of their 16 core subjects be completed by the start of their freshman year. What do you think of this change?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: I think that it is inevitable that grade point averages will rise for athletes. We are demanding more of all students and there is no reason that athletes should be exempt from these standards

LGHL: Some of our readers believe that hiking the minimum standards will provide an incentive for student athletes to take their schoolwork more seriously while others feel that the carrot of an athletic scholarship simply won't be enough to keep some from missing the new mark. What do you think about those arguments?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: There is always the fear that raising the standards will make sports & athletics unattainable for some. I recall basketball great Earl Monroe saying "the world will never see the BEST basketball players because the BEST athletes don't stay in school. As a parent of a Division I football athlete {Oregon State, class of 1991} I do know that schools take special care to insure that elite athletes get the right courses and the right mentoring and academic support so that they can take advantage of the scholarship opportunities. The student athletes I worry about are those who are "good" but not "great." They rarely get the special treatment that the more elite athletes get.

LGHL: Lots of journalists and bloggers have raised concerns about the NCAA after their Penn State sanctions. Do you think their punishment and process were just?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: The NCAA has very few levers--subtracting scholarships, restricting bowl appearances, closing down a program. The Penn State violations fall under the NCAA rubric of "lack of institutional controls." In other words, the institution wasn't taking its responsibility seriously. This is what most often happens when "boosters" pay student-athletes (or their families) on the side.

LGHL: More generally, what do you think the jurisdiction of the NCAA should be?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: Some forget that the NCAA is a VOLUNTARY organization that the schools agree to participate in. It has two main functions regarding student-athletes--1) to make sure they are not exploited and 2) to make sure no one gets an unfair advantage. The entire NCAA rule book is predicated on those 2 principles. If not the NCAA, then who?


LGHL: Do you think the NCAA can play a positive role in helping student athletes achieve positive educational outcomes, or is that strictly the purview of individual schools, the K12 school system, society, etc.?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: I think by raising standards for participation the NCAA is doing what it can do. Not sure if it can or should be responsible for anything else.

LGHL: Like with the rest of society, there appears to be a gap in educational outcomes between white and black athletes. UCF's TIDES reported that while 88% of white basketball players on NCAA tourney teams graduated, only 60% of African American males did (a smaller, 8% point difference exists on the women's side). The NCAA worries that over 40% of students currently enrolled would not be able to meet the new 2013 standards for men's basketball, a sport where the majority of participants are African American. Do you think the NCAA, or member institutions, need to have a specific policy towards addressing this disparity, or is this something that can only be addressed at the much larger macro level?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: This is a complicated question since graduation rates are calculated in a very complicated way. Anyone who leaves school before their class is considered as a "non-graduate." That means that Kentucky's Anthony Davis who left after the Wildcats won the tourney this year is a non-graduate. He also happens to be a MILLIONAIRE. Would we say he was unsuccessful. What is also missing from NCAA grad rates is the fact that African American student-athletes graduate at a high rate that African American students who are non-athletes.

LGHL: This is a good point, and I know the NCAA’S APR Rating takes this into account. Even if we take all the men’s basketball players who leave early and are drafted or move into an international basketball career, that’s what, 60 players a year, out of over 300 teams? I think you’d find a disparity between white and African American graduation rates even if you adjust for players declaring for the draft.

Also, I think we’d both agree that Anthony Davis is going to be okay even if his knees blow up tomorrow. Is that analysis as clear for a 2nd round pick? The initial earnings are very generous, but should injury shorten their career, that success may not be as guaranteed.

Dr. Ladson-Billings: I agree that the graduation rates are abysmal. However, I STILL think that the comparison {should be} between African American student athletes and the African American student non-athletes. Graduation rates are terrible ALL around for African American students. At Wisconsin our African American athletes graduate at a HIGHER rate than African American non-athletes.

LGHL: Education reform often takes a backseat to other domestic policy issues, like budget reduction, pension reform, crime, etc. Do you think educators or policy advocates could use achievement disparities with college athletics as a springboard into a larger national conversation about educational outcomes?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: With a political system as corrupted by money as ours, education is hard pressed to rise to the level of other interests--national security, economy, health care, etc. What no one seems to understand is that without decently educated citizens none of the other things will actually work. Thomas Jefferson understood it but today's politicians are terribly short-sighted when it comes to education.

LGHL: I'd read others worry that even if a student meets the NCAA min requirements (2.3 GPA, ~20 ACT score), they may be ill prepared for the rigors of college, especially at a strong Big Ten school like Wisconsin or Ohio State. Would you support raising the academic benchmark even more?

Dr. Ladson-Billings At Wisconsin we actually did a study of student-athletes who were "special admits" (i.e. those student-athletes who do not have the typical academic background) and learned that the 2 variables that mattered most were gender and ACT or SAT score. All of our women special admits graduated and all of our men special admits who had at least a 19 on the ACT graduated. So, that gives our coaches a profile of who they should attempt to recruit.

LGHL: This is very interesting to me, since a 19 on the ACT is just about as low as you can currently go and still be eligible for sports, and since coursework at UW-Madison is so demanding. I’d be interested in knowing 1) why you think women athletes are more likely to graduate than male athletes and 2) if there is something that Wisconsin does especially well to help athletes catch up so quickly and graduate?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: We allow revenue-enhancing sports (e.g. football, basketball) to recruit up to 2 "special admits" (those with profiles lower than the general student population) and then provide extensive tutoring and academic support. We can only do 2 per sport because it takes a lot of support. Incidentally, the university does "special admits" of non-student athletes but are not required to track them once they enroll so we can't compare outcomes. I think the women do better because they have less attractive post-collegiate options related to their sports. WNBA players average about $35,000.


LGHL: If you were made head of the NCAA tomorrow, what would be your major policy goal?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: I don't know if I have a "goal" per se but I do have 2 issues I have always wanted the NCAA to address: 1) allow any former student athlete who left school just short of graduation (e.g. 30 credits or less) to return without paying tuition--afterall, in the recruiting stage the coaches "promise" the parents the kids will get a degree. I would do this regardless of the former student-athletes financial situation. So I'd let a professional athlete come back to finish. It could only be good public relations; 2) I would find a way for the NCAA to compensate Historically Black Colleges and Universities for the loss of talent they have suffered in the post-Brown era. I attended an HBCU that regularly produced NFL stars (Hall of Famer WIllie Lanier of the Kansas City Chiefs was in the class ahead of me and my husband, a former NFL player also attended a HBCU) but today those schools cannot compete with the University of Florida, USC, Ohio State, MIchigan, etc and their programs are suffering terribly. I think Division I owes these school a huge debt.

LGHL: It’s funny you mentioned HBCUs…they were actually the schools I was thinking might struggle with the new standards the most. Kentucky, Alabama etc would have the resources to navigate new regulations and can recruit nationally…I’d imagine Alabama A&M would struggle a lot more. Do you think some HBCU schools should consider moving out of D1?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: Not sure re: this. Being D1 makes you eligible for some pretty special benefits and certainly helps your recruiting.

LGHL: Is Wisconsin winning the Big Ten this year?

Dr. Ladson-Billings: That's what we play for....GO BADGERS

What do you guys think? I think the idea of NCAA schools setting up a fund for former athletes to come back and finish their degree is actually a pretty great idea...and how the "have-nots' of the NCAA adjust to new regulations should be carefully studied.

Gloria Ladson-Billings is the Kellner Family Chair of Urban Education in the Departments of Curriculum & Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was a former member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Athletic Board and the Faculty Representative to the Big Ten Conference.

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