- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Connecticut Huskies cut down the nets in jubilation after they won the national championship in men’s basketball in April. Joy was in the air. There was, however, one thing the school did not celebrate or even much discuss: the dismal 27 percent graduation rate of the men’s team.

Louisiana State won college football’s championship game in January, but the Tigers lost more battles in the classroom than they won. Only 40 percent of the Tigers’ players graduated during the most recently measured four-year period.

The Huskies and Tigers hardly are alone among elite college sports programs in their academic failings.

Only two of the eight teams that competed in college football’s Bowl Championship Series last season graduated more than 50 percent of their players. Only four of the basketball teams that reached the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament reported graduating more than half.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in April approved a major reform package designed to change the emphasis schools and athletes — particularly in the big money-making sports, football and basketball — put on academics and hold accountable schools with low graduation rates.

NCAA President Myles Brand says the reforms will bring a “sea of change” to college sports.

“For the first time ever, the NCAA will have the ability to hold institutions and teams accountable for the academic progress of the student athletes,” Mr. Brand said after the package was approved by the Division I board of directors.

The reforms set standards for academic achievement that athletes and programs must meet and provide penalties if those standards are not met. The penalties include loss of scholarships, probation and postseason bans. A program could be ranked No. 1 but denied a chance to play for the national title because of a substandard graduation rate.

The question is whether reform that metes out such punishment can succeed against the lucrative tide of NCAA athletics.

The games played by college athletes mean big business for schools, advertisers and television networks, attracting many millions of dollars in sponsorship and broadcast-rights deals each year.

CBS, for example, paid the NCAA $6 billion to televise the men’s basketball tournament over 11 years. The deal, which took effect last season, is one of the largest in sports history.

The Atlantic Coast Conference, which this year expanded to 12 schools in an effort to increase revenue, recently agreed to a seven-year contract with ABC and ESPN that pays $258 million for football alone.

The big money trickles down to coaches, too. Coaches at top football and basketball schools such as Texas, Florida and Maryland make more than $2 million per year. In return, they are expected to win — and, in the process, produce more money for their schools.

Big games, big business

Winning leads to sold-out stadiums, postseason payoffs for each conference and happy alumni and boosters, who donate large sums to their schools.

The University of Nebraska, for example, recently used donations from boosters to help fund a $36 million stadium expansion.

“Let’s be serious about what we are accountable for,” says Tommy Bowden, the football coach at Clemson. “We are accountable for winning games. Duke University’s football team wins that [academic] achievement award every single year, and they have probably fired the most coaches in the last 15 years for not winning.”

Lost among all the dollars and celebration, reform advocates say, is the schools’ primary mission of education. Chronically low graduation rates at high-profile programs prompted a move for change.

“The system chosen had to alter the current culture and encourage improved academic progress,” says University of Washington athletic director Todd Turner, who led the committee that wrote the reform legislation.

“I believe if every institution gets off the hook, this whole [reform movement] will die,” says University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, a member of the Knight Commission watchdog group that proposed the changes. “[The reforms] may not be everything that we need to do, but at least we are doing something.”

Raising the bar

Under eligibility rules that will be phased in between 2005 to 2008, recruits will be required to earn a minimum 2.0 grade-point average in 16 — up from 14 — core high school classes in English, history, science and math.

Those grades will be the only factor in determining a player’s NCAA eligibility. Standardized tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test and American College Testing will not be considered.

Once on campus, an athlete would be required to graduate within five years and complete 20 percent of his degree work each year. Each athlete would be required to maintain at least a 1.8 grade-point average as a freshman and a 2.0 every year thereafter to remain eligible.

The NCAA will calculate an Academic Progress Rate (APR) for each scholarship athlete and compute a cumulative APR for each program. Each team will be required to maintain a minimum APR over a four-year period in order to avoid penalties.

Players who fail to meet requirements will be ineligible to play, lowering the team APR. Those who leave school also will lower the team APR, though not severely if they leave in good academic standing.

Programs that don’t meet the goal in the fall of 2005 will receive warnings. Harsher penalties for chronic offenders, including probation and postseason bans from lucrative events such as the basketball tournament and football bowls, would be levied when the rules fully take effect in 2008.

Three criteria will determine which teams don’t meet the standards:

• A team will be compared to all 6,138 teams at the 327 Division I schools, including those from nonrevenue sports such as field hockey and tennis to money-making football and basketball. A team would be deemed healthy if it has an equal or higher progress rate than the average of all Division I teams and would not be subject to further review.

• A team that does not pass the first standard would then be compared to all other teams in its particular sport at all 327 schools. If a program reaches that minimum acceptable progress rate, it will remain in good standing and not face the third and final filter.

• The final measure is that of a team’s academic progress against what the NCAA calls the “mission of the university” — likely a team’s academic record compared with that of the school’s student body. This criterion is the most controversial because of its ambiguity: Graduation rates vary dramatically among the 327 schools.

“Do you say the student athletes have to perform better than the student body?” says Charles Wellford, the University of Maryland faculty representative to the NCAA. “I don’t think there is a simple solution — except to say there have to be some minimums everybody has to meet. … And when you get to the second and third tier [of evaluations], you are talking about serious stuff.”

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Minority report

Inevitably, any talk of graduation rates eventually turns to race.

Blacks account for 24 percent of Division I scholarship athletes, including 60 percent of men’s basketball players and 54 percent of football players, based on statistics for the 2002-03 school year.

A recent four-year study showed that 47 percent of black athletes graduated, compared to 64 percent of whites. Black men’s basketball players graduated at a 36 percent rate, their white counterparts at a 53 percent rate. In football, white players graduated at a 59 percent rate and blacks at a 44 percent rate.

Some coaches fear that the reforms will reduce the number of black athletes, that the measures will be difficult to implement in a fair way, that marginal students no longer will be recruited, and that the reforms don’t address practical problems coaches and athletes face.

Bowden sees the statutes as racially and geographically biased, penalizing students from school systems in inner cities and rural areas. He says the reforms will force coaches to get more players from “white suburban America and private schools” in order to stay academically eligible.

“This is a pretty radical jump,” Bowden says. “My recruiting base is North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. If you probably check the lowest-rated public education states in the last 50 years, that is going to be my five states.”

Other coaches questioned how 327 Division I schools could be held to a universal standard despite different environments and levels of commitment to sports.

“I get confused when we try to use one ointment to solve everybody’s problems,” says Georgia Tech basketball coach Paul Hewitt, whose program graduated 27 percent of its players in the most-recent four-year study. “We are putting in the same rules for Lafayette in the Patriot League and Georgia Tech in the ACC. Here we are putting up the same set of standards for everybody.

“There is usually a higher graduation rate in private schools than public or technical schools. It assumes that education is standardized, like these new reforms.”

Notre Dame football coach Tyrone Willingham echoed that concern.

“We don’t want to be exclusively limiting those disadvantaged young people that come from programs that don’t have some of the amenities other programs have,” Willingham says. “We can’t afford to take away that opportunity, because an education is something that changes a young person’s life. … I am not sure if [this reform] does that. But I think we have to look very closely at it.”

Hewitt says the reforms do little to address problems such as missed class time. He says he would like to see basketball become a one-semester sport rather than have players taking final exams during the season in December.

“College basketball is dominated by African-American men. The perception is these young black men are not trying to get a degree. That’s not the case. Until we can find a way to keep these kids engaged, these numbers are not going to change.”

Reform advocates say the higher entry requirements will force high school prospects and their schools to take academics more seriously.

“With 16 core courses, I don’t think there is anybody that comes to the university who can’t graduate,” says Rice football coach Ken Hatfield, whose small, private school in Houston is always near the top in graduation rates, but usually near the bottom of the football standings. “The only reason a young man would not graduate is failure to go to class. It has nothing to do with academic preparation.”

Team concept

Making sure those young men go to class — not just winning games and running a clean program — is now the responsibility of coaches.

“They are going to be great motivating factors for a coach,” says Hatfield, who coached at the U.S. Air Force Academy before moving on to traditional powerhouses Arkansas and Clemson. “It puts the onus on him, and he can answer to the boosters, ‘If we don’t do a good job academically, we are not going to the Sugar Bowl.’ Otherwise, you are going to continue to have people go to bowls and win national championships that can graduate zero people in 15 years.”

Hatfield and Rice don’t have the budget, facilities or expectations of elite football programs that fill enormous stadiums, large followings and equally large pressure to win.

These days the schools that want to contend for the national championship in football and basketball manage a difficult balancing act between winning and avoiding sanctions. The rules discourage athletes from taking difficult classes for fear of losing eligibility.

“It will dumb down college athletics in terms of credits and [grade point average],” Hewitt says. “Kids have a dilemma in what to major in. They have to decide: What do I want to major in, or what do I think will keep me eligible?”

Will it work?

The new reforms are an experiment on a grand scale designed to revolutionize academics in college sports.

“The reform package fulfills the NCAA’s mission of making the education of student athletes paramount in collegiate sports,” says University of Kansas Chancellor Robert Hemingway, chairman of the Division I board of directors. “With these proposals, institutions, teams and coaches will know exactly what they need to accomplish to ensure their student athletes are progressing in a timely fashion towards completing a degree. If they do not meet the requirements, they will suffer consequences.”

Most agree with the importance of improving athletes’ studies and graduation rates, but they question whether this is the way to do it.

“There are a lot of plays in basketball that look really good on paper,” says Gary Williams, the men’s basketball coach at Maryland. “Then when you put them in, they are not very good plays. It’s the same thing.

“[With ] any legislation, I think you should be open-minded. You have to put your egos aside and say, ‘Is this the best thing for the kids? Is it the best thing for the schools?’ ”

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