We often sell our young people short when we judge their academic potential. They respond to our low expectations with low achievement, especially in the entertainment industry known as college sports.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has a dream. He wants to ban college basketball teams from postseason play, also known as the "March Madness" now under way in gambling pools nationwide, unless they can graduate at least 40 percent of their talented, unpaid employees. That's hardly too much to ask, but I'll believe it when I see it.
I've grown cynical. I can't watch "March Madness" without thinking of June sadness: the countless athletes who play out their eligibility without reaching the brass ring of professional stardom or a diploma.
To raise graduation rates in sports, we need to change the culture that produces the problem. That includes the socioeconomically underprivileged culture in which many athletes are raised. It also includes the culture of make-believe that causes us to pretend college basketball and football, in particular, are nothing more than amusing sideshows to academics.
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Duncan, who played basketball for Harvard and a professional team in Australia, understands the problem. If his policy were in effect now, 12 teams would miss this year's Division I men's basketball tournament because of poor four-year average graduation rates. The underachievement ranges from the University of Louisville with 38 percent to the University of Maryland's paltry 8 percent.
By comparison, the NCAA's own 6-year-old crackdown has suspended only one school from postseason play this year.
Worse, the graduation gap between blacks and whites has widened, according to this year's report by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, despite some encouraging improvements for both races. The institute found 45 teams graduated 70 percent or more of their white players, up from 33 teams last year, Richard Lapchick, the institute's director, said; but only 20 teams graduated that many of its black players, the same as last year.
The race gap is poignantly significant in a world that disproportionately encourages underprivileged African-American boys to invest their futures in hoop dreams. Coaches are not incorrect to point out the tough challenges of coaxing decent grades out of guys who don't come to college ready to learn anything but better jump shots. Yet athletes who routinely meet challenges on courts and playing fields also get serious about cracking open some books when they know the NCAA is serious about grade point averages.
In a just world, lucrative college enterprises such as football and basketball teams would act like the professional farm teams they actually are and pay their student athletes. Yet the NCAA also points out for what it's worth that student athletes currently have higher graduation rates than their nonathlete counterparts on campus "in every demographic," particularly among black students.
That raises a point made by "The Blind Side," the movie for which Sandra Bullock recently received an Oscar. It depicts the heartwarming real-life story of a white Memphis family that adopted the formerly homeless Michael Oher and helped him become a college football star and go to the pros -- with a diploma.
That's what happens with even the least privileged young athlete when they have the right people around to support, encourage and motivate them. We could see more success stories like that, even for kids who aren't athletes, if we can change our culture.
Contact Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, at email@example.com.