Classroom Failure, Postseason Ban

For first time, NCAA bars sports teams from championship play because of poor academic performance. Association's leaders admit that poorer institutions are more likely to face such penalties.
May 7, 2009

For the first time in its history, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has banned teams from postseason play for their athletes’ poor academic performance.

Football teams from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Jacksonville State University and a men’s basketball squad from Centenary College of Louisiana are the first to be punished because each has a low Academic Progress Rate -- a nationally comparable score the NCAA uses to judge teams based on their athletes’ ability to remain in good academic standing, stay enrolled from semester to semester and ultimately graduate.

Teams are evaluated on the four-year average of their APR. The measure was introduced more than five years ago, but the NCAA first began penalizing teams for poor academic performance last year. The score of all Division I institutions and their teams is updated annually, and publicly released by the NCAA every spring. The latest scores and subsequent penalties were released Wednesday.

Teams whose APRs are less than 925 -- a perfect score is 1,000 -- are subject to “immediate penalties” that can take away up to 10 percent of their athletic scholarships. This year, 124 teams are facing “immediate penalties” and most will have their number of full scholarships reduced for the coming academic year. Some of the more prominent men’s basketball teams facing scholarship reductions include Auburn University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Ohio State University, Purdue University, the University of South Carolina at Columbia and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The only two football teams from a Bowl Championship Series (or major) conference facing penalties are the University of Minnesota and the University of Mississippi.

After “immediate penalties,” teams that continue to have low APRs over the years -- the benchmark moves to 900 -- become susceptible to “historical penalties.” During this process, penalized institutions have to submit plans to the NCAA outlining how they intend to improve their academic performance. After two consecutive years of unsatisfactory scores, teams can lose more scholarships and be forced to reduce their number of practices. This year, 30 teams are facing second-year penalties. More than a third of these teams are men’s basketball teams from mid-major conferences, such as those from New Mexico State and Portland State Universities.

Following a third consecutive year of poor scores, teams can lose the ability to participate in postseason play. This is the first year that this penalty has been available for use. Of the three teams facing this penalty, only Jacksonville State has lobbied the NCAA for a waiver from this penalty.

Six teams that faced second-year penalties last year did not advance to third-year penalties this year, even though their APRs were still below 900. Kevin C. Lennon, the NCAA's vice president for membership services, explained that the NCAA evaluates each team and its plan to improve its APR separately. He added that some teams are given more leniency than others and that the NCAA can override a substandard APR to keep a team at a certain penalty level. Football and men’s soccer teams at San Jose State University, for example, continue to have APRs below 900, but did not advance to the third-year penalties and have not been banned from postseason play.

Once a team has a fourth consecutive year of substandard APR scores, its sponsoring institution can potentially lose its Division I status, jeopardizing all of its other sports teams. Next year, institutions will be eligible for this punishment for the first time. In recent weeks, some troubled institutions have responded to the strong potential of receiving this penalty by cutting underperforming teams instead of attempting to solve the academic problem they were facing.

“Our objective is to change behaviors,” said Myles Brand, NCAA president. “Our objective is not to punish and sanction.”

Brand, who has championed a number of sweeping academic reforms during his term as president, said he believed that very few institutions ultimately would cut academically troubled teams to avoid more serious punishment.

Still, he and other NCAA officials acknowledged that smaller athletics programs at less-wealthy institutions are often at a disadvantage to prevent these harsh academic penalties. Judging from the relatively small number of teams from larger programs facing penalties, Brand said he expected future academic penalties would be disproportionally levied against teams from poorer institutions.

"The truth of the matter is that if you're going to participate in high-level intercollegiate athletics, you have to provide for academic opportunities for the students," Brand said. "And that's not inexpensive."

The method the NCAA uses to calculate the APR changed slightly this year. For example, as a result of a recent NCAA policy change, athletes must be in good academic standing at one institution before they can qualify for scholarship money at another. Those athletes who transfer with less than a 2.6 grade point average will cost their institutions APR points. Additionally, this is the first year that athletes’ progress toward degree status is being considered by the APR.

Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance and president of the University of Hartford, said he believed these small changes have made the APR a more accurate measure of success in the classroom. He noted that they might also account for some of the spike in this year’s divisionwide averages.

The overall Division I APR is 964 -- up three points from last year. The averages for baseball, football and men’s basketball -- traditionally underperforming sports -- rose significantly this year. Baseball rose from 938 to 946, football from 934 to 939, and men’s basketball from 928 to 933.

Cutting across all sports for men, gymnastics beat out fencing this year as the best performing team at 978. On the women’s side, lacrosse narrowly upended crew as the best performing team at 985.

“This is a real sign that academic reform is in place at the NCAA and that our institutions are responding extremely well,” Harrison said of this year’s APR data. “As a result, student-athletes are succeeding at higher and higher rates.”

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