Eric Barron speaks up on FSU’s black football player graduation data — and it is about time

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A headline from The Onion spread via social media Thursday announced, “Florida State to Phase Out Academic Operations By 2010.”

The piece, obviously in jest, continued: “Bowing to pressure from alumni, students, and a majority of teaching professors of Florida State University, athletic director Dave Hart Jr. announced yesterday that FSU would completely phase out all academic operations by the end of the 2010 school year in order to make athletics the school’s No. 1 priority.”

Sadly, the kernel of truth that made this piece worth satire is no small kernel at all. 

Florida State became a national champion once again following its bowl championship win against Auburn, but there’s one ranking for which the Seminoles trail far behind: the percent of black football players who will graduate from college within six years.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity analyzed each of the football teams participating in the 2014 Bowl Championship Series. They looked at completion rates across four cohorts of players, rather than focusing on a single year, and found that at least half of the black players won’t graduate within six years of enrolling.

Comparably, 67 percent of student-athletes across seven NCAA Division I sport conferences will graduate within six years. The undergraduate completion rate is 73 percent overall; it’s 56 percent for black undergraduates.

According to the UPenn report, black men comprise 3 percent of undergraduate students but 60 percent of football players at the top 25 BCS schools. 

Of the Bowl Championship teams, Stanford by far has the highest completion rate for black players — 82 percent. Coming in second is Alabama, with 53 percent, followed by Auburn at 51 percent. Baylor and Ohio State each graduate 50 percent of black players, followed by Michigan State at 49, Clemson and UCF at 47 percent, and Oklahoma at 42 percent. Florida State comes in last at 37 percent. 

In context, nearly 70 percent of the Seminoles’ roster is black, and 90 percent of white players will complete their undergraduate degrees.

FSU President Eric Barron responded to the UPenn report, writing that the six-year graduation rate for black football players who entered in 2006 is reported by the NCAA at 50 percent. The methodology for the NCAA percentage differs from the one UPenn used, as it looks at a single year rather than four entering classes at a time. 

“Nevertheless, that rate remains unacceptable, and that is why in recent years our university has taken aggressive steps to improve the academic success of our student-athletes,” Barron said.

Barron wrote that Florida State has been addressing what is a national concern by doubling the funding and size of academic support programs for athletes, assigning an associate dean to oversee athlete advising. He also charged the newly hired athletic director with making academic success a priority.

But Barron wasn’t off the hook that fast. Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, Barron was called to task again.

“We are as embarrassed about that as anyone else. It’s not something we are looking at and saying that it is not important,” he said. Barron pledged to push FSU into a top 25 academic ranking. 

Barron suspects that based on his and the university’s recent efforts to increase academic support for athletes, the stats will look very different the next time someone assesses the college’s current students.

Progress is far from impossible. Just look at black women basketball players. Like their male counterparts, black women comprise the majority of college basketball programs. During the 2011-12 school year, black women accounted for 3.7 percent of undergraduate enrollments at the 76 colleges and universities in the six NCAA Division I conferences, but they represented 60 percent of women’s basketball teams at those schools. 

From there, though, the story diverges from that of black male athletes. The female players had six-year graduation rates that exceeded those for white female athletes as well as for undergraduates as a whole at those colleges. 

Coaches of male teams should take a lesson from female athletic programs. And just as they direct on-the-field play, coaches should be looking out for what’s best for their players in the long run. This means supporting them so they finish what they came to college to start.

To some, the failure of universities to graduate more black athletes has rippling effects within the student body.

 “Because black men are so overrepresented in college athletics the myth [of racial stereotypes] also negatively affects those who are not student-athletes, as their white peers and others (e.g., faculty, alumni, and administrators) often erroneously presume they are members of intercollegiate sports teams and stereotype them accordingly,” contend the study’s authors.

Regardless, it is time for us all to view college completion rates with the same excitement that we share for star quarterbacks’ passing completion rates. 

Otherwise, The Onion may as well have been telling the truth.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.