The Easy Way Out

NCAA panel, charged with bolstering basketball players' academic performance, focuses on making outcomes look better, not on actual improvement, critics say.
November 24, 2008

As the graduation rates and other academic outcomes of Division I college athletes have improved in recent years, certain groups have lagged. When baseball players performed particularly poorly, the National Collegiate Athletic Association appointed a special panel that recommended, among other things, a major change in how athletes in the sport are deemed academically eligible, to force them to pay more attention to their studies in the spring and summer, rather than just in the fall.

Last year, confronted with similar struggles by basketball players, the NCAA appointed another special panel, and a draft report of its work to date is drawing attention. Although the group has considered a wide range of possible changes (mandatory summer school before the freshman year, for instance), faculty members involved in NCAA governance are, with unusual vociferousness, expressing concern that the group's proposals ignore key root causes of basketball players' academic difficulties and focus too much on softening the impact of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate system, which punishes colleges and teams for players' poor academic performance. The two key issues that the critics believe get short shrift are the inadequate academic preparation of the players that colleges choose to recruit, and the intense demands of their sport's long playing season.

"The general feeling [of faculty athletics representatives] is that some of what's in the early stages of the document takes the approach of fixing the APR by tinkering with the matrix instead of getting substantively at why the APR is low in the first place," said Josephine R. Potuto, the Richard H. Larson Professor of Constitutional Law and faculty representative at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, who heads a group of faculty representatives from NCAA Division I-A universities that wrote to NCAA leaders last week. "The predominant if not exclusive focus should be on the root causes, not on the APR."

NCAA officials emphasize that the basketball working group's proposals are preliminary, and that the panel's members have yet to fully turn their attention to the issues the faculty representatives are raising. (The panel will discuss both players' academic readiness and the length of the playing season at a December 3 meeting.) The group has been distributing its work widely specifically to get the kind of feedback that it is receiving (well, perhaps not exactly this kind of feedback), said S. David Berst, vice president of Division I at the NCAA.

"Because we're thinking out loud as we go, and we're doing that on purpose, the volume is pretty high," said Berst, who described some of the responses as "alarmist." "It's important to remember that no decisions have been made."

Work in Progress

The NCAA's mechanism for ensuring that athletes actually get an education evolves regularly. The most recent major change came in 2003, when the association, for a variety of reasons, both eased its standards for "initial eligibility" (eliminating a minimum cutoff score on standardized scores that athletes need to be eligible to compete as freshmen) and established the Academic Progress Rate system that punishes college teams when their athletes do not make sufficient progress toward graduating.

The changes were designed to "change the culture" of big-time college sports by holding coaches and colleges accountable, in a way that they previously were not, for what happens to their players in the classroom. A team whose athletes regularly fail to make progress toward a degree or leave the institution in poor academic standing can lose scholarships and ultimately even be barred from postseason play, and the hope has been that those incentives would lead colleges and coaches to pay more attention to whom they recruit and how those recruits fare academically. (Concerns about how they would respond have arisen at times, too.)

Graduation rates for athletes have risen consistently in recent years (both before and after the new rules took effect), but athletes in men's basketball had lower rates than their peers from the start, and have failed to gain ground. That prompted the NCAA Division I Board of Directors to appoint the Division I Men’s Basketball Academic Enhancement Group in the spring of 2007, asking that the panel "identify characteristics and factors in the sport that may be serving to impair the academic performance of Division I men's basketball student-athletes," and crafting "a set of recommendations and proposals that would enhance [the Academic Progress Rate} and graduation rates in Division I men's basketball." The group has worked to do so for about 18 months; it is now aiming to finish its report by April, six months to a year later than planned.

The latest draft of its proposals has stoked the concerns of faculty athletics representatives -- who serve on their campuses as the primary liaisons between professors and athletics departments and as important links between their campuses and the NCAA -- like few issues in recent years, said David Goldfield, the Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History and faculty athletics representative at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Faculty representatives have at times been criticized by other professors for not being aggressive enough defenders of academic quality and, in some cases, of being overly friendly to athletics interests.

Goldfield and others are particularly troubled by the fact that in contemplating the reasons and exploring solutions for the academic underperformance of Division I men's basketball players, the members of the working group seem to be accepting as a permanent and unchangeable condition the fact that, as the report asserts, "[t]he academic preparation of men's basketball student-athletes is unique from many other sports, and over all, they are less prepared academically than student-athletes who participate in other sports."

"Of course," Goldfield said in an e-mail message, "we know they're referring to African-American student-athletes and perpetuating the stereotype that they cannot perform well academically and, therefore, must be given special dispensations for their handicap. As any educator will tell you, students will perform down to low expectations."

Faculty athletics representatives from the Pacific-10 Conference, in a November 3 letter to Myles Brand and Dan Guerrero, the athletics director at the University of California at Los Angeles who heads the basketball academic enhancement group, said the problem isn't that basketball players as a group are less academically prepared, but that the players many Division I colleges have historically chosen to recruit and admit are less prepared for academic success.

"Now, faced with academic penalties as a consequence of such recruitment practices, these programs seek to blame the students they recruited for the lack of success they have experienced," the Pac-10 faculty leaders write. "[W]e are concerned that this opening statement ... is really meant to provide a justification for recommendations ... that would reduce the impact of the NCAA's Academic Performance Program ... on men's basketball."

In their own letter to Guerrero (which was copied to Brand and to James F. Barker, Clemson University's president and chair of the NCAA Board of Directors), the Division I-A members of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association said they, too, were troubled that the NCAA working group's proposals do not address "the lack of readiness for college level work of some of the men's basketball student-athletes recruited to our institutions."

The working group cannot ignore "the academic profiles" of basketball recruits, the faculty representatives' group said: "While we strongly and unequivocally support access to higher education for historically disadvantaged ethnic and racial minorities and those from challenged socioeconomic back-grounds, we believe that admitting student-athletes unprepared to do college-level work both ill-serves them and subverts the academic mission," they wrote.

Similarly, the faculty representatives argue, the basketball enhancement group must address the fact that the months-long Division I basketball season extends through significant parts of both academic semesters and that the NCAA tournament pulls players from dozens of colleges out of their academic routines for anywhere from several days to three weeks in the midst of the spring semester. Yes, the men's basketball tournament is the NCAA's biggest moneymaker by far, and that any shift in the timing of the basketball tournament may be a non-starter. "Nonetheless, we urge that the Division I Men's Basketball Academic Enhancement Group put the men's basketball schedule on the table for full and serious review," the faculty reps wrote.

The basketball working group's reportdoes offer several substantive proposals aimed at bolstering the academic performance of basketball players once they're in college, including performing adequately in several credit hours of required summer school.

But its report focuses heavily on a set of changes that would limit the pain that teams feel when their players fail to make progress toward a degree. One would grant exceptions so that teams would not be punished under the Academic Progress Rate when athletes leave a college because of a coaching change. Another would give teams an extra point when a player graduates early (perhaps making up for points they've lost because players haven't graduated at all). Yet another would provide more leeway (some if already granted) if players leave college early to go pro.

None of those changes, the Division I-A faculty athletics representatives write, do anything to "affect the culture of men's basketball" (the stated aim of the whole academic progress system, they note) or enhance the academic performance of athletes. They "simply acknowledge the current culture and seek to adjust the [Academic Progress Rate] rather than the behaviors that lead to APR difficulties."

Added the Pacific-10 Conference faculty representatives: "The current set of APR-related recommendations appear designed to mask the academic performance of teams and thereby evade the consequences of poor APR results," rather than to change the behavior of athletes and teams to improve the academic outcomes.

The various faculty groups say they felt the need to express their views now -- even if NCAA officials say they may be jumping the gun on drawing conclusions -- because the longer they wait, the "more chits will have been traded back and forth" on compromises, and "the more various proposals will be interwoven, so it will be more difficult to untangle them," said Potuto of Nebraska.

In addition, she notes, individual coaches and groups that represent them have (from the very public platforms they hold) already begun arguing for softening some of the current rules, which faculty leaders clearly think is a bad idea. "All these groups have been out early with pretty clear positions, and the faculty perspective needs to be stated as strongly and as early and as emphatically as those of some of the other groups," Potuto said.

Berst, the NCAA vice president, said the academic enhancement panel has not, as the faculty groups imply, avoided or ignored questions about players' incoming academic credentials or the intensity of the basketball season. "We've just been stuck on summer school and the other issues that didn't permit us to change subjects up to this point," he said, saying that both of the issues raised by the faculty representatives are on the agenda of the panel's next meeting, on December 3.

If the faculty groups are suggesting that the NCAA should consider dealing with players' lack of academic preparation by raising the minimum academic eligibility standards for freshmen, that is unlikely to happen, Berst said. "Institutions, conferences, and everyone else can have their own standards, and maybe institutions ought to look at following their own standards instead of using ours as a minimum," he said.

The basketball working group is instead likely to consider other ways of ensuring that incoming athletes are ready to do academic work before they get exposed to the intense rigors of big-time college play, Berst said. It is, for instance, floating the idea of establishing a “year of academic readiness,” designed to help athletes who come into college with serious academic deficiencies get up to speed academically, without losing a year of competitive eligibility.

Ultimately, said Berst, the NCAA panel will confront the problems that the faculty groups say it has not yet done. "The statement of position they're making is great, and the issues are fair," he said. "But the conclusions they draw, and the impasse they envision, if we have them, we won't see until next spring.

"We may come out in the wrong places" in their eyes, he added, "but we haven't yet."


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