A Real Incentive or PR?

U. of California tried to respond to concerns about academic performance of athletes by changing the rules about when coaches can earn bonuses. Why was nobody satisfied?

February 6, 2015
 

The University of California Board of Regents shelved a new policy last month that would have allowed the system to deny athletic directors and coaches incentive bonuses unless players met the minimum academic requirements already set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Even as the N.C.A.A. and colleges face mounting pressure to improve academic integrity in college athletics, tying coaches’ athletic bonuses to academic progress is nearly unheard of. If the UC System had been successful in adopting the policy, it would have been just the second system to do so.

"Some members of the board felt that the requirements were not stringent enough," said Dianne Klein, a UC spokeswoman. "Others felt that they were fine just where they were. I think everybody agrees that trying to maintain high academic standards is the way to go, so it's just a matter of what that level should be. Should it align with the N.C.A.A. or should it raise the bar a little?"

UC's now-tabled policy, which had already been approved by UC President Janet Napolitano, was created by a committee formed last year after the University of California at Berkeley grew concerned about low graduation rates among some of its teams. In 2012, the university's football players ranked dead last in its conference for Graduation Success Rates. The university graduated just 44 percent of football players who enrolled between 2003 and 2007. The revelation was an embarrassment for the university, and as a result, the football team's new coach is the only UC coach whose athletic incentives are already tied to academics.

The policy would have required all teams to meet a minimum Academic Progress Rate in order for coaches and athletics directors to receive athletic bonuses. The Academic Progress Rate is a metric used by the N.C.A.A. to determine the eligibility and retention rates of college athletes. With an A.P.R. of 1,000, a team is graduating -- or on track to graduate -- all of its players. The N.C.A.A. requires an average A.P.R. of 930, which means a team is graduating about half of its players, in order for a team to remain eligible.

The proposed policy would have used that same minimum score -- a number Gavin Newsom, California's lieutenant governor and a member of the Board of Regents, said was too low. All but one UC team already met the required A.P.R. It was Newsom who led the successful effort to have the Board of Regents shelve the plan. Klein said a new version of the policy could resurface as early as March.

“UC’s ‘reform’ does almost nothing, under the illusion that it does something,” Newsom tweeted.

When, in October, the University System of Maryland became the first system of colleges to adopt such a policy, there was little opposition from its Board of Regents. The measure was unanimously approved. Some coaches within the system, however, balked, saying that it was unfair to coaches of teams like football and basketball, in which some players consider college athletics to be an audition for professional sports.

“I think it's asking a lot," Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese told The Baltimore Sun. “I think if a student-athlete doesn't want to get the grades or go to class, a coach can't get them there.” Those comments were echoed at the UC Board of Regents meeting last week, with one board member saying, “A college degree is not the goal of every athlete who comes to the university.”

Richard Southall, director of the College Sports Research Institute, said it's not surprising for coaches to dislike such a policy even when the requirements are so minimal. A professor wants a good student, he said. A coach primarily wants a good player.

"Coaches want motivated athletes," Southall said. "They don't want to say to an athlete, 'You should really focus on your studies more.' That's not how we motivate athletes. We motivate them by saying, 'Keep working hard and get in the weight room.' There's this inherent logical contradiction with this policy where a coach is telling an athlete one thing, but being rewarded for another."

Tying athletic bonuses to academic progress does have its share of other supporters, including Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education. In 2011, Duncan suggested that teams that don’t meet the minimum A.P.R. should be banned from playing in tournaments or bowl games, effectively cutting out any potential coaching bonuses for championship appearances. Later that year, the N.C.A.A. Division I Board of Directors voted to do just that.

In 2013, Duncan and Tom McMillen, a former congressman and basketball player, cowrote an opinion piece for USA Today urging colleges to “financially punish coaches” who are not graduating half of their team's athletes.

“Poor academic performance means the team or the individual player -- not the coach -- gets punished,” they wrote. “But no coach should receive financial bonuses when much of his team is flunking out or failing to get a degree.”

While tying academic progress to athletic bonuses is rare, offering separate bonuses for academic performance is a common practice among college sports contracts. The benchmarks, however, can be similarly low.

Jim Harbaugh’s contract with the University of Michigan offers the new head football coach up to $150,000 a year for achieving an A.P.R. of 960 or higher. The average A.P.R. for Football Bowl Subdivision programs -- institutions that Michigan would not often consider academic peers -- was 956, according to the most recent data from 2013.

When he was a coach at Stanford University, Harbaugh’s teams mostly hovered in the 970s range, but so did Michigan’s team under previous coach Brady Hoke. Harbaugh, a coach known in the past for his emphasis on academics, stands to receive a substantial bonus if he manages to at least maintain the A.P.R. set by Hoke. The contract even gives him 15 points of wiggle room -- the A.P.R. of Hoke’s 2013 team was 975.

Last year, the University of Louisville’s head football coach, Bobby Petrino, received $500,000 as an academic bonus for surpassing its A.P.R. threshold. The university set the desired figure at 935, just five points over what the N.C.A.A. requires to remain eligible.

Gerald Gurney, president of the Drake Group, a faculty organization concerned about the academic integrity of college athletics, said rather than receive bonuses for meeting academic requirements, coaches and athletic directors should be fired for not meeting them.

“Academic incentives look good, but this should be a responsibility, not an incentive,” Gurney said. “Colleges hire these celebrity coaches and then look for excuses to boost their salaries. And tying athletic bonuses to academics is really just more of the same.”

Gene Smith, athletics director at Ohio State University, said as contracts will likely always contain incentive bonuses of some kind, it makes sense to at least focus the bonuses on academic achievements.

Last March, Smith received a widely criticized $18,000 bonus after an Ohio State wrestler won an N.C.A.A. championship. If it's problematic to profit so heavily off the work of a team of unpaid college athletes, critics said, it's even more so to profit off a single unpaid athlete in an individual sport like wrestling.

The practice is not uncommon, but in an interview this week, Smith admitted "it just didn't feel right."

The university announced last week that it had drawn up a new contract for the athletics director, replacing many of the athletic bonuses with academic ones. Gone are bonuses for national and conference championships in all but football and basketball, and in their place are chances to earn bonuses for the cumulative grade-point average of all teams and, starting in 2016, for the percentage of athletes who are employed after graduation in positions that require a degree.

"It really fits better with what we're all about," Smith said. "There's always going to be incentives, so why not have them focus on the most important piece: helping kids get their degrees and finding a career path? That's the number-one objective."

Smith will receive a $55,000 bonus for a cumulative G.P.A. between 3.0 and 3.29; $75,000 for a G.P.A. between 3.3 and 3.49; and $90,000 for 3.5 or greater. The athletic bonuses for football and basketball that remain are still lucrative, however. For football, he will receive $25,000 for a Big Ten championship; $35,000 for a bowl appearance; $35,000 for a national semifinal appearance; and $50,000 for making it to the finals.

Southall said, for all its good intentions, linking bonuses to graduation rates and G.P.A.s and A.P.R. scores is “just a great deal of kabuki theater" that generates good PR and accomplishes little.

“I think it sort of speaks to the fact that athletics and the academy are not related at all,” he said. “The A.P.R. may measure graduation rates, but it doesn’t really measure what’s going on in a classroom or what a student is learning. You’re trying to make that connection with these types of bonuses or restrictions. I think it’s very dangerous to artificially connect athletics and academics this way.”

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