Is Our Cinderella Learning?

Posted in Basketball, College Spurts, Lower Education at 4:29 am by

Oregonian columnist John Canzano is often mocked by his detractors (generally speaking, I am not one) when he goes all Rick-Reilly-meets-Dave-Zirin and writes, for example, about the Juarez murders during Oregon State’s Sun Bowl visit. He has also, for better or worse, been the guy most associated with holding the “Jail Blazers” accountable (or unfairly tarring them as bad actors, depending how you look at it).

So it was sort of surprising to me to see this little dismissive tangent in the comments section of his most recent column about Portland State, after someone noted that the Vikings helped bring up the rear of the latest University of Central Florida report on tournament team graduation rates.

(REPLY FROM JC: The manner in which grad rates are measured is inherently skewed against the mid-majors or commuter campuses that will take second chance or higher risk student athletes. I’m shocked PSU isn’t last.)

This is a familar argument (see also: John Chaney) that has a lot of truth to it, but isn’t this exactly the sort of subject that should rate one of those “socially conscious” columns at a time when everybody else is doing game previews and human interest?

For example, how does Binghamton and Robert Morris and Utah State and Western Kentucky graduate 100% while PSU is 17%? And isn’t the fact that Portland State is one of just 7 tournament teams that will face NCAA penalties for its substandard APR, well… news? (three straight substandard APRs can get you booted from postseason play).

To be fair, PSU’s graduation rate last year was 43% – in basketball, where a graduating class can be just two or three students, numbers definitely don’t tell the whole story – but they do still tell a story. It’s also interesting to note that in the current study, PSU had a 50% graduation rate for African-American players but a 10% graduation rate for white players – most schools trend the other way.

Btw, this blog may have been the first to suggest PSU as a first round winner. It certainly hasn’t been the last, but I’m not too convinced. Neither are the sports books, which has Xavier as a 10 1/2 point favorite (for that, I sure do like the Vikings). Xavier’s coming off two recent losses, but they were both basicallly meaningless, the last one coming against an underrated Temple team in front of a Philly-partisan crowd. And while I always hesitate to read too much into conference comparisons, Big Sky regular season champion Weber State, which beat the Vikings by double digits both home and away, just got eviscerated by San Diego State in the NIT.

One thing’s for sure, Portland’s ostensible proximity to Boise won’t work against the Muskies… or so PSU coach Ken Bone told the Cincinnati Enquirer:

“Our gym seats 1,400 people. We don’t fill it up. We had two sellouts this year.”

Last year in Omaha, when we played Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, we had no more than 25 fans there. Hopefully this year we’ll get 40 to 50. Maybe a couple parents…my wife and three daughters will be there. That’s about it.”

It’s true. I lived walking distance from their arena for three years and am ashamed to say I never went to a game; they are sixth fiddle in Portland behind the Blazers, Oregon, Oregon State, the Winter Hawks and the University of Portland (which at least draws when Gonzaga comes to town). There are of course, advantages to such anonymity – unless, that is, CBS is currently working on a moving halftime story about what a difficult, character-building experience it was for Jeremiah Dominguez to be falsely accused of assault while on spring break last year.

Update: Today Portland State abolished its men’s wrestling team. From the university’s own press release:

The program has not achieved an appropriate academic progress rate (APR) as mandated by the NCAA. In fact, two years of excellent APR scores by the wrestling program will still not be sufficient to avoid penalties severe enough to impact Portland State™s entire athletics program, including its Division I status.  

4 Responses to “Is Our Cinderella Learning?”

  1. Brendan Flynn says:

    The APR is total bullshit. For starters transfers and people that leave early for the NBA hurt programs even if they were on track to graduate. Players that take finish their degree after more than six years aren’t given credit for their work and constantly count, for NCAA purposes, as college dropouts. The current APR also tracks classes from several years ago so if schools have improved their graduation rates it won’t show up for some time.

    I believe the John Chaney argument has more depth to it. It’s not solely about taking at-risk kids. Chaney thinks students who complete some college are better off than their peers who have no college. Several studies back this notion up–it’s why “some college” is a choice on long-form statistical surveys. We can argue about whether basketball programs should graduate players but why let that stand in for the real argument—what the hell our we doing with our higher education system?

  2. Ricardo Rio says:

    How could you leave a lovely city and climate like PDX for the ultra ugly and humid hole that is Austin??? To clarify, I have left PDX too but for the incredible climate of Albuquerque.

  3. Jason Cohen says:

    Yeah, APR has its issues, but you never hear anyone with a good one complaining. At some fundamental level it measures whether or not student athletes do the same thing as normal students – go to college and graduate in six years. Regular students who don’t get their degree in six years don’t show up in the overall graduation rate statistics either; regular students who drop out to make “El Mariachi” or form a successful indie rock band don’t either. By the same token, sometime people will blast a graduation rate (say, Texas football’s 40%) when it’s not really that much lower than the student body’s, so yeah, your “real argument” is certainly germane.

    The transfer thing can be more problematic but it still tends to highlight the fact that they weren’t there to get a degree in the first place, or that the school did fail them, because they either transferred for academic reasons or entirely sports-related reasons. You never hear swimming or lacrosse coaches complain about how this flawed measure gets them in trouble. Also, Portland State’s 17% figure is GSR, which doesn’t punish you for transfers (their APR is bad too though).

    And hey, there’s also a more crass “real argument”: if I’m a Portland State fan I don’t want my team to lose more scholarships (Jerry Glanville’s football team already has) or miss out on postseason play.

    Agreed about the “some college” thing, which you can apply to Derrick Rose just as easily as the marginal kids Chaney favored. But how many of today’s coaches are truly thinking in those terms? More than we might give credit for – for one thing there’s always been a racial component to this issue, Bob Huggins or Gary Williams are seen as exploitive, John Chaney and John Thompson as empowering – but also not enough.

  4. Brendan Flynn says:

    Jason—great comment. I would guess that in the case of Lacrosse, at least, there are background/socio-economic factors that also impact academic performance. There isn’t a lot of money in a pro-lacrosse career compared to playing basketball in Europe or Asia. But that certainly can’t account for everything. I know basketball coaches complain that their sport crosses both semesters, forcing to take more courses over the summer when its harder for the department to keep tabs on them. One would think the sheer number of compliance officers, assistants and tutors at most major programs could overcome this.

    I used to believe in graduation rates to the point where I respected the hell out of UNC and Duke despite being from Maryland and rooting for the very Terrapins (and oddly Temple Owls) who are so maligned by such measures. So perhaps I’m merely reciting Gary Williams’ talking points here.

    But, being a teacher and student at a D-III public university system has changed my opinion on the importance of graduation. You can offer students your time and consideration but you can’t write their papers for them, make them go to class, or will them to succeed. That responsibility is theirs. Obviously teachers (and coaches) should constantly ask themselves if they’re doing enough to meet kids halfway. I think teachers fail in this as often as coaches.

    Poor graduation rates are an endemic institutional failure of many public universities. Their mission is conflicted: reward individual achievement while also preserving our society’s commitment to equality of opportunity. It’s probably not possible. Any commitment to equality of opportunity means failure for some students—perhaps cynically public universities want that tuition check as badly as coaches want conference championships. Then they both are exploitative. Or, perhaps, they both genuinely believe that some college is better than none. I (possibly out of convenience) share the latter view.

    That doesn’t mean college basketball isn’t exploitative. We should be paying players on top of their tuition remission—but graduates get screwed just as badly if not worse on this front.

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