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Dumb jocks or misguided stereotype?

An examination by Indiana University sport sociologist Gary Sailes of the academic success of male basketball players on elite college teams found that contrary to popular belief, academic and athletic success weren't mutually exclusive.

Sailes and study co-author Louis Harrison of the University of Texas examined teams that made it to the Final Four in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual Division I men's basketball tournament. They compared two different standards used by the NCAA -- an older federal guideline that focused on graduation rates and the new model that combines a variety of factors -- such as the number of years a player is academically eligible -- into Academic Progress Rates.

"The results were pretty surprising," Sailes said. "If you look at the old graduation rate, half of the teams were good, half were bad compared to all Division I basketball teams. The elite teams are right at the cusp. If you look at the new rate, the elite teams are well above the other teams. With the new formula, it's in your best interest to play on a team with a Final Four history, because you're likely to do better academically."


Sailes is an associate professor in the IU Bloomington School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation's Department of Kinesiology. The researchers examined teams that competed in the Final Four between 2000 and 2004. Here are some of the findings, published in the Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education:

  • The average APR scores for Final Four teams were 941.75 in 2000, 945.5 in 2001, 921.25 in 2002, 918.5 in 2003 and 926.25 in 2004, which were higher in each case than the 916 average rate for all Division I men's teams.
  • The graduation rates of Final Four teams were lower than the rates of their NCAA Division I peers in 2000, 2002 and 2004 (the data was suppressed in 2003).
  • During this time, white male Division I basketball players graduated at a higher rate than their African American peers, by an average margin of 14.8 percentage points. This gap was closing, however, from 22 percentage points in 2000 to 8 percentage points in 2008.
  • In 2000, male Division I basketball players had a graduation rate of 42 percent, compared to 44 percent in 2004. When looking at all male Division I athletes, the graduation rate was 51 percent in 2000, increasing to 55 percent in 2004.
  • With the old NCAA formula, which focused on graduation rates, players who transferred from other schools counted against the team even when they graduated. Still, some teams in Sailes' study graduated none of their players in some years. "It says more about the coach than anything, not necessarily the team," Sailes said. "The leadership of the team sets the mindset of the whole team. If the coach is recruiting players who aren't graduation material, he's influencing the whole team."

Regarding the "anti-intellectualism" stereotype, which Sailes says, "is another way of saying 'dumb jock,'" student athletes actually have higher graduation rates and better grades than the student body in general. Athletes who participate in individualized sports, such as golf and gymnastics, do particularly well. Players on basketball and football teams, however, have historically struggled academically compared to other athletes.

"They're improving, however. Graduation rates of African American athletes are improving, as well," Sailes said. "It's minimal. But it's going in the right direction."