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Originally published May 3, 2013 at 4:32 PM | Page modified May 3, 2013 at 4:31 PM

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Guest: Racial disparity in graduation rates on NCAA basketball teams

The familiar argument that college sports provides a valuable education to student athletes regardless of race, rings hollow, writes guest columnist Alex Alben.

Special to The Seattle Times

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MARCH Madness quickly faded into April sadness after the NCAA tournament. University of Louisville guard Kevin Ware emerged as the sentimental star of the tournament after breaking his leg in his team’s victory against Duke, but technically, he could lose his athletic scholarship if unable to return from injury.

Underneath the excitement and glamour of the annual tournament, the policy against offering “student athletes” multiyear scholarships discredits college hoops and exposes the hypocrisy of a multibillion-dollar industry that essentially relies on a free labor force — even though Division I football and basketball coaches are routinely paid more than university presidents.

Many players who make it to the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight will not get to play in the big show, or even graduate. Subject to injury and the whims of coaches hired to win at any cost, many recruited athletes get cut from their teams and drop out of school, because they rely on successive one-year scholarships to fund tuition and expenses. Louisville has a 56 percent graduation rate on the men’s basketball team, according to the 2012 NCAA graduation report.

The trend is particularly pronounced for African-American basketball players. In its annual study, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport reported that the graduation success rate for black players is significantly lower than for their white teammates. White male basketball student athletes on tournament teams graduate at the rate of 90 percent, compared with 65 percent for their African-American male counterparts. The gap narrows for women athletes on tournament teams, with 94 percent of whites and 88 percent of blacks graduating.

The familiar argument that college sports provides a valuable education to student athletes, regardless of race, rings hollow in the face of NCAA policies and witch hunts against poor young men and women who happen to find themselves on the wrong side of NCAA rules.

The NCAA considers the smallest favor, a gift of preseason football tickets, an “improper benefit” that could lead to disqualification, while insisting that the athlete, many of whom are married or have dependents, fully fund their college years from scholarship money.

When such single-year scholarships are withdrawn, is it any surprise that recruited athletes drop out and seek other opportunities? To his credit, NCAA President Mark Emmert, the former president of the University of Washington, pushed the association two years ago to offer the option of multiyear scholarships, rather than the traditional one-year grants. This modest measure barely survived an override vote within the NCAA, with more than 60 percent of schools voting to return to a one-year standard.

While the University of Louisville is unlikely to have the bad PR sense to refuse another scholarship to Ware, his situation only underscores the anomalous position of the student athlete in big-time college sports.

The 2010 CBS-Turner Broadcasting 14-year basketball television contract is worth $10.8 billion to the NCAA. Participating colleges should direct more funds to multiyear scholarships and educational initiatives designed to graduate student athletes of all races. Such performance is not impossible. Illinois, Wake Forest, Duke and Notre Dame had 100 percent graduation rates for their hoops teams in 2011. The 2011 graduation rate for the UW men’s basketball program was 56 percent.

Keeping students in school after they are injured or cut by teams may result in a lower level of athletic competition, given the fixed number of scholarships each college can award per sport. Yet wouldn’t that be a small price to pay for truly serving the “student” in “student athletes?” Wouldn’t we still root for our teams and watch the games?

Alex Alben is the author of “Analog Days — How Technology Rewrote Our Future.” Email

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