The Grand Experiment’s Hidden Stat

Some have called it “Paterno’s Payback.” Others term it “superlative.” Others still have just been wonderfully, spontaneously emotional about the whole thing. No matter how you choose to express it, ever since the Freeh Report handed down its “absurd” indictment of the Penn State “culture,” we have all gotten a little more outwardly defensive about the consistently high academic standards maintained by the institution’s athletic programs.

Understandably, most folks have latched on to Penn State’s above-average football graduation rates to refute the nonsense and assert the continued success of the Grand Experiment. Allow me to offer a related statistic that’s quoted far less often in the press, but perhaps even more significant in making the case for Penn State: black graduation rates.

In reading a media report on the latest of the many, many lawsuits brought against the NCAA (we’re getting to the point of needing a scorecard to keep track), I came across the following passage:

“This academic debacle, at one of the nation’s finest public universities, could not have come as a surprise to the NCAA,” the lawsuit states. “It had ample warning, including empirical evidence from numerous academic experts, that many college athletes were not receiving a meaningful education, including — disproportionally — African-American college athletes in revenue producing sports.”

That’s an important point. As we wrestle with the social and cultural implications of big-time college sports and the widening gulf between the players and those who enrich themselves at their expense, the same issues of racial inequality that made national headlines this Summer are simmering just below the surface. The dirty little secret behind the already-uninspiring graduation rates at many football powerhouse programs is that the topline number actually masks a distressing (and depressing) disparity between black and white players.

This is not – and has not been – the case at Penn State. Penn State not only graduates its football players at a rate well above most of its peers, it does so with with little appreciable difference between white and black students. In preparing to write this piece, I came across a very helpful article on the topic from Onward State. I’ll quote from it here:

Penn State scored above the national average in every measurable category…

The data also reveals Penn State’s extraordinary commitment to African-American student-athletes. The 89 percent Graduation Success Rate is the second-highest figure in school history, just one point off the record 90 percent figure in the 2012 NCAA report. The figure was second-best among Big Ten institutions behind only Northwestern’s 92 percent, and 21 points higher than the national average of 68 percent. The four-year federal rate for African-American student-athletes also ranked significantly higher than the Division 1 national average since the first report was released in 1990.

Take note. That there has consistently been little to no gap between the academic achievement of white and black Nittany Lions remains one of the most underreported and underappreciated feathers in Old State’s cap.

This is nothing new in the Nittany Valley. By now, most Penn Staters have probably heard of Wally Triplett and his account of the “We Are” chant’s origins. In all honesty, it’s likely that he has “retconned” the famous cheer’s history, but the facts surrounding his story are not in dispute. In 1947, Triplett’s teammates did vote to forego a game in Miami where black teammates were not permitted to play. The following year, he did become the first black player to appear in the Cotton Bowl, deep in the heart of Texas. In the annals of Penn State history, Triplett’s name is synonymous with the struggle for equality. These are the best-known aspects of the story, but none is my favorite part. Thanks to the book Game of My Life – Penn State, I know this: Wally Triplett, the man who would become the first African American player to play in the NFL after being drafted, did not gain admission to Penn State based on his athleticism. One of the most significant players in the school’s signature sport failed to earn a football scholarship coming out of high school. He had his chance to become a Nittany Lion, but only because he arrived at Penn State on a full ride for academics.

Nothing is perfect, of course. There will probably always be room for improvement on this front. But if you’re looking for evidence that Penn State is a place that tries to do it the right way, that has tried and will continue to try, there it is. Almost 70 years after Steve Suhey declared, “We are Penn State. There will be no meetings,”and exactly half a century since Martin Luther King carefully chose isolated little University Park as a stop on his Northern speaking circuit, our University stands out as a place where young men can come to achieve great things on the field and in the classroom, regardless of where they came from or how they look.

You wanna talk about culture? Look around. This is culture.

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