If the championship in NCAA men's basketball was based on the graduation rates of black players on the teams, it would be Duke and Villanova taking the court tonight in  Detroit rather than Michigan State and the University of North Carolina.
Both Duke, which lost in the third round, and Villanova who lost to UNC on Saturday, graduate 86 percent of their black players. This is some of the very scarce good news from a study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport conducted by Richard Lapchick.

But the story of graduation rates for black athletes at elite basketball programs is much the same as it was a year ago, and it is largely a depressing tale: While they excel on the court, most of them leave college without a diploma. And they are not all going to the NBA either. A much larger percentage of white players graduated college than blacks in the six-year period covered by the study—2001 through 2007.

Tonight's championship teams illustrate both the promise and the problems. UNC graduated 80 percent of its black players while Michigan State graduated only 43 percent, according to the study.

In general, white male student athletes graduate at 80 percent versus only 58 percent of their black teammates. That disparity represents a slight improvement over last year’s numbers which showed a 24 percent gap.

None of the teams that made it to the Sweet 16 this year can boast a 100 percent graduation rate for its black players. Two colleges—Arizona and Gonzaga—didn’t graduate any black players at all. Arizona, Duke, Michigan State, Missouri, UNC, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Xavier graduated all of their white players.

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Michigan State had the greatest disparity in graduation rates among those Sweet 16 teams. All of its white players graduated; but only 43 percent of the black players got a diploma.

Some critics say that teams with especially poor graduation rates—like UConn with an overall graduation rate of 33 percent and Arizona with an overall rate of 20 percent—should not be eligible for the championship tournament.

Boyce Watkins, a professor at Syracuse University, sees the NCAA graduation numbers as just another tragic chapter in the lives of poor, black young men. “It’s like they back the bus up to the black neighborhoods, load up all the good players, then spit them out in a couple of years when they are done,” Watkins said. And when that happens, they often return to the poverty and distressed social conditions they left behind.

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Watkins believes that the NCAA and its member colleges should pay their athletes because of the millions they make from gate receipts, sponsorships and other sports-related income streams. But for a long time, the NCAA response to that has been that the  athletes are rewarded by the opportunity to get a college education and by the exposure they receive in high-quality sports programs.

But if an education is the payoff, those who don't graduate are getting the very short end of the stick. The NCAA in 2005 initiated sweeping academic reforms aimed at increasing the number of players who graduate from its member colleges.

NCAA president Myles Brand says those reforms have brought some progress, but he adds that there is a lot of work to do. He touts their records which show that 79 percent of all student athletes who play Division 1 sports graduate college within six years. 

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But basketball, at least for blacks folks, is different. When you look on the court at most Division 1 games, the players are black. When you go to other sports competitions—gymnastics, baseball, the mix is just not the same; so the 79 percent overall graduation rate doesn’t reflect the disparity.

“Nearly 8 out of 10 Division I student athletes are finishing college and earning their degrees. This is extremely good news,” Brand said.

And in response to Lapchick’s study, NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson cautioned that the numbers can be misleading because of the small sample.

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"We're always looking for improvement," he told the Associated Press. "We know that African-American men's basketball players are graduating at a higher rate than African-American males in the general student body, so we're hopeful in the progress."

Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama.