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Knight Commission Urges NCAA And Schools To Tackle Racial Inequity

Senior night at Rutgers, where graduating seniors received framed jerseys and applause at the last home game of their careers. Though graduation rates have improved over time, Black basketball players in the NCAA's top division graduate at a rate about 13 percentage points lower than their white teammates.
Kathy Willens
Senior night at Rutgers, where graduating seniors received framed jerseys and applause at the last home game of their careers. Though graduation rates have improved over time, Black basketball players in the NCAA's top division graduate at a rate about 13 percentage points lower than their white teammates.

A new report on racial inequity in college athletics urges the NCAA and its member schools to take measures to improve the academic performance and career prospects of Black athletes, who graduate and get sports-related jobs at lower rates than their white peers.

The report, titled Achieving Racial Equity In College Sports, was released Wednesday by the Knight Commission, an independent board of university administrators and former athletes that has long pushed the NCAA on issues of academic achievement.

"At its best, sports can be an arena where everyone's differences and skills are respected and prized, and can come together in an affirmation of the value of talent, teamwork, perseverance, and discipline. Yet sadly, that's often not the case in intercollegiate sports," the report's authors wrote.

It is the commission's first report to focus on racial equity and especially the experiences of the more than 80,000 Black athletes playing NCAA sports. Though they make up 16% of all college athletes, Black athletes represent about half of players in the money-generating sports of football and basketball.

In the report, the Knight Commission calls on the NCAA and its member schools to address educational and professional opportunity gaps between Black and white athletes, do more to recruit and hire from underrepresented groups, and invest in programs to support Black athletes while they are on campus.

"Both NCAA reform and institutional reform of racial equity policies and procedures are long overdue. It is time now to pursue a more equitable and socially just model of college sports that provides fairer and more diverse opportunities for all college athletes, including Black athletes," the report reads.

Among the many recommendations made in the report, the commission suggests schools adopt a variety of hiring and recruitment practices and avoid clustering Black athletes in certain academic majors or classes. They also urge the NCAA to eliminate standardized testing requirements and require its member schools to hire an administrator focused on the interests of athletes of color.

To cap it off, the commission announced it will offer $100,000 grants to schools to fund research on interventions to improve Black athletes' experience and reduce their achievement gaps.

"In the face of systemic racism, research has found that sports, particularly men's basketball, has been touted as a route for upward mobility within the Black community, which can work at times to the detriment of Black athletes' personal, social, and cultural development at college," the authors write.

According to a March study of Division I men's basketball by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport, the graduation rate of white athletes was 13.5 percentage points higher than Black players. At some schools, the gap was 30 percentage points or greater.

"That's a huge problem that we've got to address," said Shonteana Keys, a former Division II college basketball player who served as co-vice chair of the task force that produced the report, in an interview with NPR.

Perhaps the commission's simplest recommendation is that schools adopt a so-called Russell Rule, a college sports version of the NFL's Rooney Rule requiring that teams with a head coaching vacancy interview at least one person from an underrepresented group. The commission suggests expanding it beyond head coaching positions to assistants and administrators.

Last year the West Coast Conference became the first Division I conference to enact such a rule, naming it for Bill Russell, the NBA great who played for WCC member school University of San Francisco.

Jobs in college-level coaching and athletics administration have long been dominated by white men, despite the huge number of Black players in college athletics' most visible and profitable sports.

In Division I men's basketball, where well over half of players are Black and only about a quarter are white, 70% of head coaches are white men. Among assistant coaches, roughly equal numbers are Black and white.

In football, the disparities are even larger. While just under half of Division I football players are Black, and another 10% are Latino or multiracial, their head coaches and high-level coordinators are overwhelmingly white.

"There has to be an investment in diversifying our leadership across D1 schools and then fostering a pipeline of opportunities for coaching and administrators for Black candidates," said Keys.

Keys and her co-authors also call for colleges and universities, especially those the report calls "predominantly white institutions," to improve the on-campus experience of Black athletes. They also ask the NCAA to "dramatically boost" financial support for historically Black colleges and universities.

The Knight Commission is a long-standing group focused on college athletics. Its influential reports have helped shape policy at the NCAA and other institutions, especially with regard to academic standards. It is currently chaired by former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Five years ago, the group set aside its longtime opposition to any form of player compensation and announced its support for allowing college athletes to earn money for what are known as "name, image and likeness" rights, which covers things like video game appearances and product endorsements.

The Knight Commission is a project of the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has also provided funding to NPR.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.