Advertisement

March Madness 2024: Women's College Basketball is On Fire. Here's Hoping It Doesn't Mimic Men's Basketball.

Photo: C. Morgan Engel (Getty Images)
Photo: C. Morgan Engel (Getty Images)

Women’s college basketball is having a golden moment of record television ratings, thanks to the outer space shooting of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, the hustle of LSU’s Angel Reese, the ageless durability of Geno Auriemma’s UConn and the powerhouse that is South Carolina’s Dawn Staley’s .

I hope that all that glitters in the women’s game does not become as tarnished as the men’s game.

For the 28 years that I’ve charted team graduation rates in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournaments, I’ve seen that women play ball and hit the books, preserving what is left of the “student-athlete” model.

For instance, in a 2004 analysis for the Boston Globe, 53 of the 64 women’s teams in that year’s “March Madness” had a federal graduation rate of at least 50 percent for their original scholarship recruits. Two decades later, 57 of the 64 teams in this year’s tournament were at 50 percent or higher.

Federal graduation rates cover whether students graduate within six years from their original schools. College sports reformers said 50 percent should be the minimum for teams to play in tournaments. Getting a degree should matter to most college players as they have only a 1 percent chance of playing in the NBA or the WNBA.

DALLAS, TEXAS - APRIL 02: Angel Reese #10 of the LSU Lady Tigers reacts in front of Caitlin Clark #22 of the Iowa Hawkeyes towards the end of the 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament championship game at American Airlines Center on April 02, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. - Photo: Ben Solomon (Getty Images)
DALLAS, TEXAS - APRIL 02: Angel Reese #10 of the LSU Lady Tigers reacts in front of Caitlin Clark #22 of the Iowa Hawkeyes towards the end of the 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament championship game at American Airlines Center on April 02, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. - Photo: Ben Solomon (Getty Images)

The men have always been much worse in the classroom: Of the 65 men’s teams in the 2004 tournament, 44 had a federal graduation rate below 50 percent. This year, 35 of 68 teams — more than half — were under 50 percent for their original recruits. At 25 percent or under were Stetson, Florida Atlantic, Auburn, Arizona, Long Beach State, Houston, Texas A&M, North Carolina State, Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Oregon, and Texas.

These low rates usually include massive racial disparities. Men’s teams are three times more likely to have graduation rates of at least 75 percent for white players than for Black players. Racial disparities are where I worry that the glitter is not all gold: women’s teams historically have had more racial graduation parity.

But there are signs of erosion as stars cash in on endorsements, disgruntled players try to switch schools (many never land at another school),and coaches purge rosters to assemble better teams.

In the women’s Final Four, UConn has a 33 percent federal graduation rate for its original Black recruits, compared to 75 percent for white women. South Carolina is only at 43 percent for Black women. NC State’s 60 percent graduation rate for Black women pales next to the 100 percent for white women.

Only Iowa is generally excellent, at 75 percent for White women and 100 percent for Black women.

This is beginning to mimic the men’s Final Four. NC State has a 15 percent graduation rate. UConn and Alabama are 44 percent for Black players. Only Purdue is decent overall at a respective 71 percent and 75 percent for Black and white players.

Like millions of Americans, I am glad that women’s college basketball is no longer second class. I just hope it retains its class, with graduation rates proving players still go to class.

For the latest news, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.