Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Was Duke scared?

Official word to postpone tonight's 9 p.m. Carolina-Duke tilt came at 5:40 p.m. amid miserable winter weather conditions. Several initial reports incorrectly credited the weather as the sole reason for the postponement. Fortunately, Carolina Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham showed us a sliver of another reason.

"Duke's bus is not able to get to their campus to pick up the team in time to be able to make the trip to Chapel Hill, so we can't play this evening," he said. "The safety of the teams and officials is the number one priority, and this was the best decision to make at this time. Coach Williams, Coach Krzyzewski, (Duke AD) Kevin White and I will be on the phone with the ACC and will make a decision as to when to play the game as soon as possible."

ACC rules dictate that a game must be played if the officials and teams can get to the game safely. Fans are not considered in the rules, but it is true that upwards of 20,000 people will be safer without a game to attend tonight.

However, I can't not mention a few facts that, when paired with some reasonable assumptions, could tell an additional story.

Because driving was predicted to be dangerous around 8 p.m., Carolina planned to admit students to fill the empty seats of the ticket holders who would stay home. This happened twice before in the history of the Dean Dome, and the result was a student section so large that it filled pretty much the entire lower level and then some. Typically, alumni fill the seats that are closest to the court while students are dispersed in random sections throughout the arena. You can imagine the difference when you stack this deck with 10,000 wild cards. If I was an opposing player, I'd prefer the alumni in the front rows. I wonder which seating plan Duke prefers?

The officials were ready to go. ESPN had put its equipment in place more than 24 hours ahead of tip-off. Clearly, nearly everyone who was necessary to the execution and broadcast of the game was well aware of the conditions and planned accordingly. Everyone except, perhaps, the Blue Devils.

Duke's players had to attend their afternoon classes, you might say.

You'd be wrong. At 9:31 a.m. Duke canceled all classes effective at 12:50 p.m. The Duke athletic department had all morning to figure out how to get its team on the eight-mile ride to Chapel Hill eight hours before tip-off to avoid the expected weather complications. Instead, they either stuck with a departure time that was set last summer or were the victims of a lousy bus company. If they knew the bus would be late, they could have used any of a few hundred beat-up yellow school buses.

Cunningham got it right. Postponing the game was the best and only decision to make at the time of the decision. I just wonder what was going on over at Duke after 9:30 this morning.

From my comfortable couch in Asheville, it appeared that Duke was just plain scared.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My response to the CNN student-athlete literacy report

UNC posted a response to the CNN report shortly after I posted this. Please note the addendum at the bottom of this post.

This week CNN published a report on illiteracy among college student-athletes and, more specifically, among UNC-Chapel Hill student-athletes.

Former UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC men's basketball and football players from 2004 to 2012. She reported that 60 percent read between the fourth- and eighth-grade levels and 8-10 percent read at or below a third-grade level. That means 70 percent of revenue-sport Tar Heels were not ready to read college textbooks, which are written at a ninth-grade level according to CNN. The same report stated that 25 percent of revenue-sport Tar Heels would not have qualified to take classes at a community college.

CNN requested similar records from 37 public universities but received very little in return.

Arizona State, Rutgers and Michigan State denied CNN's request based on privacy laws. CNN has since appealed those decisions with no results to date. ASU was, however, happy to report that it employs one (!) learning specialist to work with all (!) of its student-athletes. Perhaps ASU felt good enough to report this after it discovered that Kentucky employs zero (!!) reading specialists for all of its student-athletes.

Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Utah, Michigan, Florida and Florida State all said they do not keep records of entrance exam scores or results of reading evaluations for athletes. Could we reasonably extrapolate that they don't keep records for any of their students? Athletes are students, after all.

Maryland never replied. South Carolina acknowledged receipt of the request but refused to respond.

Many other schools complied and responded with ACT and SAT data. In CNN's report, a college-literate test score was a reading ACT score at or above 16 or a reading SAT score at or above 400. Some of those schools used this standard to report a percentage of revenue-sport student-athletes who were not ready to read at the college level. Others reported their revenue-sport student-athlete ACT and SAT reading test averages next to either the averages of non-athlete admitted students or the averages of all admitted students. In short, these institutions reported that anywhere from 7 to 18 percent of their revenue-sport student-athletes read at the elementary level.

Most of the reporting schools came out better than Willingham's version of UNC. And given UNC's elite status among public universities, I can't imagine the unreported achievement gap between non-athletes and revenue-sport student-athletes would be a pretty thing to see.

As an educator and UNC alumnus, I am trying to digest this blizzard of information as objectively as possible. A few red flags, some in favor of UNC and some not, immediately come to mind.

I work for a North Carolina community college that sets higher standards for college literacy: at least an 18 on the ACT reading section or at least a 500 on the SAT reading section. Again, these are the standards for a community college in North Carolina. Admitted students who don't test as college literate have to take a separate placement test that forces them to enroll in one, two or three sequential, no-credit, developmental courses. I was surprised to find that CNN's standards for literacy at major research institutions were so much lower. It is unclear whether Willingham's reported 25 percent of Tar Heels that could not qualify for classes at a community college came from the 16/400 standards or the 18/500 standards. I suspect it came from the 18/500 since my employer and UNC both exist in North Carolina.

I cannot fathom that so many major research institutions do not keep records of their students' ACT and SAT test records. I know they require each applicant to provide scores before granting admission, so their statement leads me to believe either that they destroy the data upon admission or that they are lying to protect their student-athletes' privacy. But why didn't they just say they were protecting their students' privacy? They would have sounded more competent if they did.

I don't know the exact numbers, but I know a team of people is dedicated to meeting UNC student-athletes wherever they are and improving their academic abilities. As everyone knows, at least one of those people went rogue and broke the rules, and a professor and department chair did the same. We paid for it as an institution, and the athletes involved will suffer as a result for who knows how many years. Despite these missteps, UNC has maintained a commitment to giving all its student-athletes resources that other universities apparently do not.

CNN's statistical reporting was bad enough that I, an educator with a journalism and mathematics degree, do not understand the facts behind Willingham's numbers. Why does the report state that 25 percent of Tar Heels weren't ready for community college coursework while 70 percent of Tar Heels weren't ready to read on a college level? Further, CNN reported reading scores while omitting math scores, something annoyingly negligent but also unfortunately American.

I do not mean for these criticisms to undermine the larger purpose of CNN's report. The United States has perhaps the most advanced higher education system in the world paired with a disappointing secondary education system to feed it. Combine these with the big-money machine that charges $60 to go to a football game, and you wind up with some academically unprepared college student-athletes.

Some say that it simply isn't fair for an underachieving male student who excels at either of two sports to take the spot of the best student of either sex that UNC does not admit. Others would expand that to say it might not be fair for an underachieving student of either sex who excels at any sport to take the spot of the best unaccepted student. I'm not sure which statement is closer to the reality. Any college sports fan with a bachelor's degree has considered these matters of fairness. I know I have. It is a crisis of conscience and economics, and we have to have a conversation about it.

A few UNC fans say that the University is unfairly at the forefront of these conversations. They say that other universities seem to handle these issues better by staying out of the spotlight and keeping their players eligible. This stuff happens nearly everywhere else, you have heard your friends say. Why does the media always target us?

I think the media targets us because we are the nation's first public university and one that "with lux, libertas - light and liberty - as its founding principles, [charts] a bold course of leading change to improve society and to help solve the world's greatest problems."

Yes, that is the end of UNC's mission statement. It's just a mission statement, you might say, and you'd be right. Not all mission statements mean something, but ours does. That's why I pause every time I see UNC as the poster child for what is happening at universities across the country. We are leading this conversation. Our faculty, students and alumni are the ones writing critical letters to The Daily Tar Heel because we know that when we lead our university to a better day, others will follow.

Addendum: UNC also posted a response to the CNN report shortly after I posted mine. I agree with its first point, that Willingham's emphasis of a couple student-athletes' inability to read and write is an unfair representation of the majority of Tar Heel student-athletes. These alleged case examples are too statistically insignificant to merit Willingham's and CNN's condescending detail. If all but one Tar Heel can sound out "Wisconsin," then it is inappropriate to mention that one could not near the lead of the story.

Willingham has not met the University's request for the data that supported her statistical claims. She should. I certainly hope that she simply hasn't had time but will do so in the very near future.

UNC stated that "a subcommittee . . . established guidelines and procedures for the admission of student-athletes and other students with special talent." It would be informative for UNC to add an explanation of at least some of those guidelines and procedures on the page.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Shooting a free throw is a science

Excluding Marcus Paige, Carolina has shot close to 50 percent from the charity stripe this season. That is bad enough to lose to undermanned teams like Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham between unforgettable wins over the best teams in the country. If you believe the head coach, the Heels' struggle at the line is the players' fault.

"I'm tired of talking about free throws," Williams said after last night's loss to Texas. "You've got to be tough enough to step up and make the dadgum thing or go play soccer."

I love Roy Williams, but I don't agree with his statement that making free throws is all about toughness. Making a free throw is mostly physical and only partly mental.

My authority on this subject is limited since I haven't shot a competitive free throw since my senior year of high school in 2002. But in my early high school days I took lessons from a private shooting coach, and shooting a free throw was one of the most important lessons I learned. I feel like I have to explain why I think the Heels stink at the stripe because nobody else seems to share my opinion.

To consistently make free throws, a player must minimize his movement. This can mean slightly different things to different players, but the basics are always the same. The shooter should slightly bend his knees with the ball near his midsection and pause. Then he should lift the ball to his shooting pocket, which is slightly above and in front of his forehead. Finally, the player should extend his knees and shooting arm.

This is a slight simplification. For instance, a player could struggle with slow rotation because he is palming the ball instead of correctly placing it on his fingertips. He might also have off-center rotation as a result of poor follow through or hand placement. But the striking thing to me is that some of Carolina's most talented players don't seem to demonstrate my aforementioned simplification.

I know our numbers stink, but you don't have to show me the number 59.6 for me to know that most of our players will miss half of their attempts. We have guys with shooting pockets near the backs of their heads. We have guys who appear to ball fake before they raise the ball to their shooting pocket. Sometimes I think I'm watching a friend play Just Dance 3 instead of watching a Tar Heel shoot a free throw.

As a passionate alumnus with little access to the team, I am left to wonder why our players look so inept at the line before the ball clangs off the back of the rim (if we're lucky). I can only guess that the coaching staff wants each player to shoot the ball in a way that is most comfortable to him. You can go to a middle school basketball game to understand why that philosophy doesn't work: shooting a free throw is a science, not an art. Very few players, even very few talented players, instinctively know how to shoot a basketball with optimal accuracy. Shooting a free throw is a skill that has to be taught and learned.

I'm sure the Heels shoot free throws at practice. But if some of them shoot free throws at practice with the same form they use in games, I think they are wasting their time.

In Roy's defense, only one of my team coaches ever offered any advice on my shooting form. The rest of them only had us shoot free throws in practice. Understanding the nuts and bolts of an effective stroke is something completely separate from coaching five players to operate on the court like the fingers on a hand. I know Williams loves and excels at the latter, but I wonder whether his players get effective instruction on the former.

They should.

Oh, Christmas tree

This morning my wife, Melissa, called me at home on her way to work.

"I saw a free artificial Christmas tree on the curb," she said. "Could you get it?"

"Sure," I replied. We had never had a Christmas tree. Living in our first home was a great reason to finally upgrade our Christmas.

"You should put it in your car," she continued. "We can figure out what to do with it later."

This seemed odd since I figured we would put the thing together in our house and put gifts underneath it. I said goodbye without asking for an explanation since I wanted to be the first to get to that free Christmas tree. Curbside merchandise does not last long in West Asheville.

I was in such a rush that I barely covered my boxers and T-shirt with a pair of blue jeans. I jogged to my car in the 22-degree chill, scraped a bit of ice off the driver's side of a completely frozen windshield and drove the half block to the location my wife had described.

Sitting next to a large Rubbermaid tub and on top of an enormous red bag overflowing with green branches was a pizza box with a handwritten message: Free 10-foot Christmas tree. Happy holidays.

Then I understood that the tree was much too large to fit in our person-sized house. Melissa's intention was lost on me, but I had no time to think since my brain was approaching a freezing temperature. Besides, we would figure it out later.

I quickly loaded the Rubbermaid tub into the trunk of the car. I couldn't lift the red bag because of both its girth and weight, so I grabbed bunches of branches and chucked them into the backseat of my Toyota Corolla. I'd neglected to bring gloves on this half-block journey, so the combination of the cold and the prickly branches quickly numbed my hands. A few minutes later, the remaining branches had overtaken the backseat and console. I tossed the few ornaments into the passenger seat and carefully drove back to our driveway with no rear view.

The sign said 10 ft. I packed it in my car anyway, I proudly wrote to Melissa.

No. Put it back :), she replied.

I had never been so delighted to see an emoticon. Melissa followed up with a phone call to say that yes, she had seen the sign, but no, she did not read the most important part of it. She apologized, but she didn't need to. I got a blog post out of it.

Please get in touch with me before my afternoon trip to Goodwill if you are a department-store owner or giant looking to decorate for the holiday season.