VCU’s Cinderella Run Provides Lesson on Belief

March 28, 2011

From a fourth place conference finish and being one of the “last four in” to being in the Final Four, Virginia Commonwealth University’s maddening March run through the NCAA Tournament has captured the biggest headline from college basketball’s biggest event.

While many tend to overplay the sentiment that “sports can teach you lessons about life,” there’s certainly a life lesson to be learned from VCU’s unlikely success through its five-game gauntlet of NCAA Tournament games.

In the hours that followed the release of the NCAA Tournament bracket, the Selection Committee was criticized for its inclusion of VCU, which had lost its last four regular season games and finished just fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association. Pundits, particularly those employed by ESPN, held nothing back in their criticism of VCU’s inclusion.

Commentators said the decision to select VCU was “horrible”, “indefensible”, “failed the laugh test” and one likened VCU and UAB to Rosanne Barr while comparing Colorado, which was left out of the tournament, to Scarlett Johansson.

The sports blog Awful Announcing features a compilation of videos of sports commentators criticizing the Committee’s inclusion of VCU. The Rams used that criticism as motivation, in particular a comment from ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who said of VCU: “They can’t guard me.”

But the Rams didn’t let what others said they couldn’t do affect what they believed they could do.

“When you have a belief in each other and a belief in your coaching staff anything like this can happen,” VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez said.

In fact, just prior to tipoff against No. 1 seed Kansas Sunday in the Elite Eight (a game VCU won 71-61), Rodriguez was told by a Kansas player, “You guys have had a good run, but now it’s over.” But the Rams’ confidence and belief didn’t waiver.

“Once again, we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game,” said 33-year-old VCU coach Shaka Smart. “But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. We talked before the game about how nobody else really matters, what they think. That’s our theme throughout the NCAA Tournament since we were selected. Our guys have done a phenomenal job putting all the doubters aside, putting all the people that didn’t believe in us aside and going out and doing their job.”


Graduation Rates, Racial Gap Increase

March 17, 2011

When college basketball fans fill out their 2011 NCAA Tournament brackets, they rely on a team’s on-court performance throughout the season to assist them in making their predictions. But what if fans placed greater importance on teams’ academic graduation rates rather than their basketball prowess?

Each year, Inside Higher Education creates a bracket to showcase what the results would be like if schools advanced in the NCAA Tournament based solely on their academic progress rates (APR) with any ties broken using the school’s graduation rate. Based on their findings, Princeton (996), Kansas (1,000, a perfect score), Texas (1,000), and Butler (1,000) would be in this year’s Final Four with Texas and Butler playing in the national championship game.

According to the Graduation Success Rates (GSR), 42 teams in this year’s 68-team field graduated 60% or better of their players and 32 teams graduated at least 70%. However, seven teams had graduation rates of less than 40%, with the lowest being Arizona (20%), the University of Alabama at Birmingham (25%), Connecticut (31%), and Temple (33%).

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida releases the annual study detailing the NCAA Tournament schools’ graduation rates. Their findings for this year’s teams shows that graduation rates are improving overall, with both white and African-American student-athletes graduating at a higher rate than last year. White student-athletes for this year’s NCAA Tournament teams have a 90% graduation rate, while African-Americans have a 58% graduation rate.

Although the graduation rates for both African-American and white college basketball players continues to rise, the disparity of the rates between African-American and white student-athletes increased by 4% since last year. The staggering gap of 32% has increased 10% since 2009.

“For years we have noted the deeply troubling disparity between the GSR of African-American and white men’s basketball student-athletes,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of TIDES. “While the actual graduation rates of African-American basketball student-athletes continue to increase, the gap increased to 32 percentage points! An ESPN poll conducted for Martin Luther King Day this year indicated that the greatest concern of both whites and African-Americans in the general public was this disparity. Hopefully that concern will generate new resources to address this problem.”

While this gap may seem disturbing, compared to African-American men in the general student population, the graduation rate of NCAA Tournament-bound African-American student-athletes is much higher. Despite that widening gap, there are five schools in this year’s NCAA Tournament that have higher graduation rates for African-American players than white players, those schools being Boston University (100%/80%), Northern Colorado (100%/78%), Old Dominion (50%/33%), Pittsburgh (60%/50%), and North Carolina-Ashville (rates n/a).

TIDES also released graduation rates for teams in this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament. As has historically been the case, the 2011 report revealed that women’s basketball teams had a higher overall graduation rate than men’s basketball teams. A graduation rate of 70% or higher was achieved by 91% of women’s teams, compared to 49% of men’s teams who achieved that benchmark. What is the reason for this?

“I think for women athletes and basketball players the emphasis is on balancing academic and athletic performance,” Lapchick said. “Coaches and everybody involved advising the women have pushed positive academic success. That’s become a tradition in women’s sports. But there are some of the same people advising both men’s and women’s teams on these campuses. So there’s a sort of academic challenge there, too. For me the next step is to hold up the women as a model of what we can do.”

Dr. Richard Lapchick is a forerunner in the fight for racial equality in sports and “the racial conscience of sport.” He co-authored the books 100 Pioneers: African-Americans Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport, 100 Trailblazers: Great Women Athletes Who Opened the Doors for Future Generations, 100 Campeones: Latino Groundbreakers Who Paved the Way in Sport, and 150 Heroes: People in Sport Who Make This a Better World. All four books are published by Fitness Information Technology and are available at

Quantitative Analysis of How to Win H-O-R-S-E … Seriously?

January 6, 2011

As the production editor of the International Journal of Sport Finance during all of its five years of existence, I have grown to appreciate the quantitative research and analysis that permeates the journal. Even though my brain functions primarily in a qualitative mode (what do you expect from an editor who works daily with words?), I have been enlightened and seen the importance of such analysis relating to sport topics such as stadium finance, uncertainty of outcome, ticket pricing, salaries, state appropriates, donations, and even gambling.

That’s why I was so excited when I saw a post on the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective blog titled “Optimal H-O-R-S-E Strategy.” I thought to myself, “Sweet! I can learn some secret tips that will help me dominate my opponents when we play H-O-R-S-E on my driveway basketball hoop.” After all, my son is nearly 5 years old and is growing stronger and taller daily, and my daughter, nearly 3, can already dribble a basketball. I desperately need some tips or else they’ll soon start defeating their old man in our games of H-O-R-S-E.

I read through the post, concentrating as best as I could in order to grasp the meaning of the equations and all of the letters such as p, n, and k. Math was always my strongest subject in school, but after changing my major from engineering to journalism, I think the portion of my brain that comprehended statistical analysis went into permanent hibernation.

Anyway, the statistical analysis in the blog post wasn’t really difficult to comprehend. But to be honest, the end of the article left me feeling a bit duped. Sure, it was interesting to learn when to take higher percentage field goal attempts and when to take more risky shots (like my favorite from behind the goal and over the backboard). But I felt a bit deflated when I read the following:

“The bad news is if you’re a weaker shot than your opponent it can be very difficult to win even when you use superior strategy. While it will help if you call your shots based on these calculations, at the end of the day the best way to improve your H-O-R-S-E odds is to become more familiar with a basketball and not just with a calculator.”

Upon reading that, I felt crushed. My dreams of being a dominant H-O-R-S-E player by implementing the findings of the article were just dashed. When the snow melts away, the temperatures rise, and winter gives way to spring, it appears my calculator and all my newly acquired knowledge about the statistical analysis of shot selection in the game of H-O-R-S-E won’t really compensate for my utter lack of shooting prowess.

Some Schools Use Millions in Student Fees to Supplement Athletic Revenue

October 4, 2010

Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano is making more than $2 million per season, and in recent years the University committed to spending more than $100 million to upgrade its football stadium. Meanwhile, student fees contributed nearly $8 million toward Rutger’s athletic department revenue in 2008-09, which equals more than 13% of the revenue generated by Rutgers’ athletics.

According to a USA Today database on athletic department budgets, Rutgers netted less than $200,000 in 2008-09. Take away the nearly $8 million contributed from student fees and the athletic department would have severely overspent.

Rutgers isn’t alone. A recent report by USA Today outlined in detail how some universities are using escalating student fees to support the multi-million dollar budgets of their athletic departments. The practice has some academicians, students, and parents crying foul.

Transparency, or the lack of it, is what has some up in arms, as many universities go to great lengths to make it difficult to discern just how much their athletic departments are benefitting from receiving student fees.

To some, it seems as if the athletic department is the big, bad bully on the block, stealing lunch money from poor students to pay its coaches millions of dollars and build lavish luxury suites for its millionaire alums.

But as Dr. William Kern, chair of the Department of Economics at Western Michigan University, pointed out to Fitness Information Technology, athletic departments aren’t the only units in a university that receive financial support from general funds. Kern and Donald Alexander, also a professor and economist at Western Michigan University, recently conducted a study on the effect of athletic success on state appropriations to universities. Their research will be published in the November issue of the International Journal of Sport Finance.

“There are a number of activities across the university that are subsidized through one means or another,” Kern said. “For example, there are probably a number of academic departments on every campus that don’t generate revenues sufficient to cover the costs of their operations.

“Philosophy might be such a case and the reader can probably think of others in the fine arts where this might also be the case. But we subsidize them because we think they are a necessary part of the university. That argument is easier to justify in the case of philosophy than in the case of non-revenue sports but some would no doubt argue much the same way that sports are an integral part of the university.”

Perhaps the biggest objection with using general funds and state appropriations to support athletic department budgets is the fact that salaries for coaches in football and men’s basketball, in particular, have escalated at a rapid pace during the past decade. It’s now atypical that a coach in one of those two sports at a large university isn’t earning in the neighborhood of $1 million annually, with a select few football coaches earning $3-4 million per year.

In addition, many universities are spending millions to upgrade athletic facilities, not necessarily because they are structurally unfit, but because their rival schools have enhanced their facilities.

“There seems to be an arms race with regard to improvement in facilities and coaches’ salaries, at least in the major sports at large state universities,” Kern said. “This spending is not likely to decline as any individual university that stops spending finds itself at a competitive disadvantage against its rivals. What is really needed to stop this is some sort of rule that constrains spending that applies to all schools. Robert Frank has a nice analysis of this issue in his Knight Commission report of collegiate athletics.”

Frank, an economist at Cornell University, concluded in his 2004 Knight Commission Report that after extensive research, “The empirical literature seems to say that if the overall net effect of athletic success on alumni giving is positive, it is likely to be small.”

Still, while Frank and other economists profess that athletic success has little effect on donations, it should be noted that athletic success is believed to contribute to school loyalty and a student’s enjoyment while on campus.

“Students seem to be demanding more and more amenities associated with their college experience and sports in both participant and spectator forms appear to be a part of that,” Kern said. “Most students don’t seem to want to attend ‘no-frills’ universities that would eliminate these sorts of things and just stick to the basics of instruction.”

Do NCAA Licensing Deals Exploit Student-Athletes?

September 9, 2010

It’s a debate this isn’t likely to end anytime soon, but a recent event once again stirred up questions about whether collegiate student-athletes should be paid.

Talented University of Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green violated NCAA rules by selling his game jersey from last year’s bowl game to a person the NCAA recognizes as an agent. As a result, Green has been suspended for the first four games of this season.

For those on the “pay the players” side of the argument, a column by Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated made some strong arguments that players such as Green are being exploited by their universities, apparel corporations, and the NCAA.

Green reportedly sold his jersey for less than $150, but the violation of NCAA rules cost him four of the Bulldogs’ 12 regular-season games. As Staples points out, the University of Georgia sells Green’s No. 8 jersey (see image) for between $60 and $150, of which Green receives nothing.

Staples argues that it’s a double standard that the NCAA preaches about amateurism, maintains a tax-exempt status, and then earns millions of dollars courtesy of the athletic achievements of its “student-athletes,” who are punished for the slightest overstep of the NCAA’s Britannica-like rulebook.

The sale of jerseys adorning popular players’ numbers is just a small portion of the licensing revenue the NCAA reaps from the performances of its amateur athletes. A more recent phenomenon has been the use of players’ “likenesses” in video games, which produces millions of dollars of additional revenue for the NCAA and video game creators such as EA Sports.

Some of these issues have moved into legal battles, as described in a column in the September 2009 issue of Sport Marketing Quarterly (Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 160-164) by Anita Moorman and Marion Hambrick. In their column titled “To License or Not to License: That is the Question for Professional Sport Leagues and the NCAA,” Moorman and Hambrick describe how three recent court cases are intertwined with regard to licensing. Two of those cases directly involve the NCAA.

In Keller v. Electronic Arts, Inc., former football player Sam Keller filed a lawsuit against EA Sports, the NCAA, and the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) for the video game maker’s use of players’ likenesses, mannerisms, and distinctive appearances without the players’ permission. In O’Bannon v. NCAA, former basketball player Ed O’Bannon filed a lawsuit against the NCAA and CLC on behalf of himself and former student-athletes, who he claims, since their eligibility has expired, should no longer be bound to the amateur status form (Form 08-3a) that the NCAA requires all student-athletes to sign.

“As these cases wind their way through the legal system, the NCAA must revisit the delicate balance it has achieved between preserving amateurism, and avoiding exploitation and over-commercialization of student-athletes and maintaining its vital revenue-producing activities, including licensing student-athletes’ names, image, likeness, or other aspects of identity.” (p. 163)

While there is currently no clear-cut answer to the question of whether collegiate athletes should be paid, things are slowly trending toward the point in time when deeper discussions among decision makers must take place.

US-Russia Hoops Matchup Stirs Bitter Feelings From 1972 Munich Gold Medal Game

September 9, 2010

It happened exactly 38 years ago to the day, but even two generations later, the mere mention of the gold medal basketball game between the United States and the Soviet Union at the 1972 Munich Olympics still evokes highly emotional responses from both sides.

Those emotions spilled over once again this week as the US and Russia prepared to face off Thursday in Turkey in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Championships.

In what is widely regarded as the most controversial conclusion to a basketball game in international competition, the USSR “defeated” the US 51-50 to claim the gold medal. It was the Americans’ first defeat in Olympic basketball history, snapping a streak of 63 straight victories and seven consecutive gold medals.

The US trailed much of the game but took the lead on two free throws with 3 seconds remaining. At that point, confusion among the referees, timekeeper, and even FIBA secretary R. Williams Jones resulted in the USSR receiving three attempts to inbound the ball and score. It succeeded on the third attempt, with a perfect full-court pass, a nice catch, and some sloppy defense resulting in the winning layup. (For a more thorough description of the game’s final seconds, click here.)

In his book American Hoops: U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball from Berlin to Beijing, sport historian Carson Cunningham wrote of the 1972 game: “The ending was not merely poorly supervised; it was chaotic, confusing, and without precedent” (p. 229).

To this day, the US is still bitter about the game’s outcome, refusing to accept the silver medal both at the 1972 Munich Games and every subsequent time they have been asked to accept the second-place prize.

This year’s coach of the Russian World Championship team, David Blatt, said earlier this week he believes the USSR was the rightful winner of the 1972 gold medal game, and admitted that he cried joyously after the Soviet victory.

Those words didn’t sit well with US coach Mike Krzyzewski, who fired back at Blatt’s recollection.

“You know, he coaches the Russian team, so he probably has that viewpoint, and his eyes are clearer now because there are no tears in them. So, it’s great. Whatever he thinks, he thinks. … It is what it is. It’ll be a negative from the way the US looks at it forever, and should be. And it’ll be in some ways a positive for those who believe in fairy tales.”

The Cold War has long since concluded, but the cold feelings between the two countries’ basketball representatives about the 1972 Munich Games are obviously still just as strong as they were 38 years ago.

For video of the final 3 seconds and the ensuing aftermath, click on the video below, courtesy of ESPN Classic via YouTube.

Series Examines Perils of Youth Sports

September 3, 2010

On the heels of the Little League World Series, The Columbus Dispatch has published an interesting, in-depth, five-day series on the perils of youth sports. The series, complete with stories, interactive data, videos, and photos, details some of the problems with what has grown into a $5 billion industry.  The series reveals how some young athletes are forced to play with pain despite not having fully developed bodies, how many are tempted to use supplements, how they have unrealistic dreams of playing professional sports, and how many non-profit organizations are being victimized by a lack of regulations. The series, titled “Little Leagues, Big Costs” examines some of the pitfalls of youth sport from many different angles, including financial and psychological. Click on the link below to access the series.

[Little Leagues, Big Costs, by The Columbus Dispatch]