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JACKSON: NCAA doesn't care if its athletes graduate

Early this basketball season, when the NCAA released its 2009 Division 1 Graduation Success Rate report, interim president Jim Isch boasted how the overall graduation rate was up nearly 10 percent over the last eight years.

"Be assured, the NCAA's commitment to academics is as strong as it has ever been," Isch said.

Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chairman of the NCAA's academic performance committee, added, "At the ground level of academic reform ... there has been monumental change."

There is no assurance of monumental change until the NCAA finally grounds its worst programs. But there is no sign of that as Kentucky made the Division 1 tournament with a Graduation Success Rate of 18 percent for its black athletes and 31 percent overall.

This program single-handedly betrays the NCAA as toothless on the exploitation of athletes. Kentucky's graduation rate for black players for the last six years reads like this: 18, 17, 9, 17, 17, 0. Over the last 10 years, its black player graduation rate has never risen above 29 percent. Its overall graduation rate passed 50 percent only once, in 2001.

Yet, who do we see hawking March Madness? None other than Kentucky's $32 million coach, John Calipari. He remains one of the faces of college basketball despite Final Four appearances at UMass and Memphis that were struck from the record books for violations that damaged the reputations of the schools and players, but somehow, not him.

This is particularly outrageous as the NCAA no longer penalizes schools in graduation-rate reports for players who leave early for the pros, as long as they were in good academic standing. Between that statistical adjustment and the schools that on their own elevated their games in the classroom, renegade programs are more exposed than ever.

The NCAA says 56 percent of black basketball players graduate from Division 1 teams, continuing a slow increase. White players graduate at an 81 percent rate. There is plenty of praise to go around. Top-tier seeds Kansas, Duke, Villanova, Pittsburgh, and Georgetown graduate 67 to 100 percent of black players. Marquette, Wofford, BYU, Wake Forest, Utah State, and Notre Dame graduate 100 percent across the board. But until the NCAA bans the likes of Maryland, Texas, Nevada Las Vegas, and Kentucky, the concept of "student-athlete" is corrupted beyond repair.

Maryland is in the tournament with a zero black graduation rate and 8 percent overall. It has been at zero for black men the last three seasons. Over the rest of the last decade, it has been at 11 percent four times and never cracked 25 percent.

The black graduation rates at Texas the last three seasons were 29, 14 and 22 percent. UNLV has five years of black player grad rates of 13, 10, 10, 14, and 17 percent. And then there is the maddening University of California, Berkeley. The campus graduation rate is 85 percent, including 62 percent for black students. But the graduation success rate for its black and white players is zero.

There is a huge gap between those teams and and the teams that take graduation seriously. Of the 65 teams, 24 had black graduation rates of 67 percent or higher. But 28 teams were at 44 percent or lower.

In his commercial, Calipari says, "To survive in the big dance, you can't study just one team at a time. You've got to be ready for anything. I prepare my team with NCAA Mega March Madness." Until the NCAA demands studies of another sort and bans programs that do not heed the demand, March Madness will remain a national indictment of how we let college sports drive us stark raving mad.

Jackson, a columnist for the Boston Globe, can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

THE BOSTON GLOBE

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