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March madness and graduation

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The much-celebrated "madness" that prevails this time of year, with its basketball brackets and good-natured office rivalries, can be good for school spirit and alumni support. But it also can highlight how far athletics has drifted from academics at many institutions.

We're glad to see U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took the opportunity to drive this point home this week.

Duncan went public with what some are calling a radical proposal (Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim called it "completely nuts") to eliminate any team from tournament play that isn't on track to graduate at least half its players. He urged the NCAA to use its own Academic Progress Rate, a metric that predicts a graduation rate based on current academic performance. Any school scoring less than 925, which would predict about a 50 percent graduation rate, would have to stay home.

If such a rule were in place, 10 teams currently in the men's tournament would be gone, including Kansas State, Purdue, Syracuse, the University of Southern California and the Mountain West Conference's own San Diego State. Utah's two representatives this year, BYU and Utah State University, have high graduation rates and would be safe.

Beyond the pain of some high-profile eliminations, Duncan said such a rule would have an immediate, positive effect. Schools quickly would get the message and begin emphasizing academics.

"If you can't graduate one in two of your student-athletes, I just question the institutional commitment to academics," he was quoted as saying by USA Today. That doesn't sound "completely nuts" to us. It sounds quite the opposite.

The current emphasis on wins over grades at many schools has a disturbing racial undertone. When graduation progress is examined closely, white players at tournament-worthy schools graduate at a 91 percent rate, while black players do so at only 59 percent, according to a study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics at the University of Central Florida. Duncan emphasized this by focusing on Kansas State, USU's tournament opponent. Its team is on track to graduate 100 percent of the white players but just 14 percent of the black players.

Given how few college players have any hope of playing in the NBA, many of these black players have few chances to succeed in the future. Their schools essentially have exploited them for the purposes of wins and athletic revenue, then cast them aside without academic degrees or practical skills. If there is any real madness to tournament season, this is it. This kind of exploitation is a mockery of the academic missions of those schools and an injustice fair-minded Americans should not tolerate.

Duncan said he's just looking for some leadership and courage from the NCAA. He seems to be exhibiting both. We applaud him for speaking plainly on the subject and hope the NCAA listens.