The National Collegiate Athletic Association has banned a record eight teams from postseason play because of their athletes’ poor academic performance — the most since the academic penalty system was first used  two years ago. But, in a sign of the widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in college sport, four of those punished teams are from historically black colleges and universities,  and a fifth is from an institution designated by the federal government as predominantly black.
Tuesday, the NCAA released its annual set of Academic Progress Rates  — scores for each Division I sports team based on the academic eligibility and retention of each scholarship athlete. Teams scoring below certain APR thresholds can face penalties ranging from scholarship losses and practice time reductions to postseason bans and, ultimately, suspension of their institution’s NCAA membership. The longer a team scores below a certain threshold, the more severe its penalty. Each teams is judged on the four-year average of its APR. The latest scores are from the 2006-7, 2007-8, 2008-9 and 2009-10 academic years. (A searchable database  is available showing complete APR scores and penalties per institution and team.) This year, of the 6,400 teams in Division I, 103 teams from 67 institutions were punished. Sixty teams lost scholarships, 16 received public warnings, 19 lost practice time and 8 have postseason bans.
The men’s basketball team from Grambling State University, the football team from Jackson State University, and the men’s basketball and football teams from Southern University at Baton Rouge are the first HBCU teams to receive one-year postseason bans because of their low APRs. Non-HBCU teams also receiving one-year postseason bans include the men’s basketball team at California State University at Northridge, the men’s basketball team at Chicago State University, the football team at Idaho State University, and the men’s basketball team at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. (Though Chicago State is not an HBCU, it is designated by the federal government as predominantly black because more than 40 percent of its student population is black.)
Teams from HBCUs received a significant share of the penalties handed out this year. Of the 103 teams that were punished, 33 are teams from HBCUs — a fact that concerns NCAA leaders.
“We want to help them develop plans for improvement,” said Mark Emmert, the NCAA's president. “But, clearly, some of these institutions have a different scope and mission, and we need to be cognizant of that as we try to help…. We have a special obligation to work with HBCUs.”
A few years ago, the NCAA introduced the Supplemental Support Fund, $1 million in grants “to assist low-resource institutions [not just HBCUs] with funding academic needs." It also created the HBCU Advisory Group, made up of college presidents, to serve “as a forum for sharing best practices” on improving their athletes’ academics. Emmert and others say the NCAA needs to do more to help but that, first, it must see if what it is already doing is making a difference.
“We have to assess whether those grants [from the Supplemental Support Fund] made any difference at all,” said Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance and president of the University of Hartford. “It sounded like a good idea at the time."
The punishments handed down Tuesday will most affect the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the two Division I conferences made up entirely of HBCUs. Eight of the 13 MEAC institutions received penalties, as did five of the 10 SWAC institutions.
“It’s concerning that we have this issue,” said Duer Sharp, the Southwestern league's commissioner. “But we’re working hard to address it. I think [HBCUs] can succeed [by the APR standard], but it’s all about resources.”
HBCU advocates most often argue  that their institutions simply do not have enough money to hire academic advisers, tutors and other support staff to ensure that athletes attend class. A number of larger institutions with big-time athletics programs have poured money into academic facilities and support staff to ensure that their athletes are performing well in the classroom. But money is not everything, according to Sharp.
“While I do applaud the [Supplemental Support Fund], our biggest issue is what we do with those funds,” Sharp said. “We have to look at this issue strategically. For instance, not all of our institutions struggle with the APR. We need to find out what those institutions are doing that the others aren’t."
Football teams at Alabama A&M University, Alcorn State University and Alabama State University have APRs of 928, 927 and 925 — out of 1,000 — respectively. This is above the initial 925 APR benchmark for penalties. Football teams at Southern University at Baton Rouge, Jackson State University and Texas Southern University, however, have APRs of 899, 879 and 813, respectively. All three are facing harsh penalties, including scholarship reductions and lost practice time.
Sharp added that he thought the NCAA could do a better job of communicating with HBCU leaders. He said he would like for NCAA officials to conduct one-on-one meetings with administrators from these institutions and go beyond the work of the HBCU Advisory Group.
“It’s difficult for them to get a grasp of something like this from 20,000 feet,” Sharp said. “It’s better at 10 feet, when you have presidents and chancellors from these institutions right there. We need to start a better line of communication.”
More Changes on the Way
NCAA officials also discussed Tuesday their plans to “streamline” the APR penalty structure.
Harrison noted the Committee on Academic Performance will soon recommend that there be a single benchmark for penalties . There are currently a higher benchmark — 925 out of 1,000 — and a lower benchmark — 900 out of 1,000. Those teams that fall below the former in any year are given less-severe penalties, and those teams that fall below the latter for consecutive years are given stackable and more-severe penalties. Harrison’s proposal would get rid of the lower benchmark and begin stacking penalties to all teams with APR scores that fall below a single benchmark of 930.
“And I expect that benchmark will go up as time goes on,” Harrison said. “I don’t want it to settle in at any rate.”
Additionally, Harrison said another NCAA committee is actively considering changing the initial eligibility  requirements — the minimum academic standards a high school athlete must meet to play at an NCAA institution.
“We favor increasing the core GPA requirements,” Harrison said. “We don’t have a specific figure in mind. It’s 2.0 now.... We’re thinking 2.2 or 2.3. We think this would result in more successful college students.”
Other Notable APR Findings
- The University of Connecticut men's basketball team, which won the national title last month, earned an APR of 890 and was docked two scholarships. Two other big-time basketball teams also received penalties: the University of Arkansas, with an APR of 892, and Georgia Tech, with an APR of 915.
- The University of Louisville and the University of Maryland at College Park are the two big-time football teams to receive penalties, with APRs of 908 and 922, respectively.
- Women's teams outperformed men's teams. Nearly all women's sports have APR averages that are above the penalty benchmarks.
- The overall average APR for Division I teams is 970. This is up three points from last year.
- The highest-profile NCAA sports saw notable increases this year. The average football team APR is 946 — up two points from last year. The average men's basketball team APR is 945 — up two points from last year. The average baseball team APR is 959 — up five points from last year.