As recently as two years ago, the only way a college could get in trouble with the National Collegiate Athletic Association was to break one of its rules, be it a serious one like engaging in academic fraud or a comparatively minor one like giving a recruit a few extra t-shirts. But no amount of academic failure by players could lose a team a scholarship, require it to give up practice time, or bar it from a bowl game or the NCAA tournament. That reality made it easy -- as many critics of the NCAA did, and in some cases still do -- to question how seriously the overseer of big-time college sports and the college presidents who run it take the academic nature of the enterprise.
The NCAA's announcement Tuesday of the latest step in its multiyear campaign  to assess the academic progress of Division I teams may not persuade the stingiest skeptics of college sports that the NCAA and its leaders care as much about academics as they assert; association officials continue to play down the likelihood that athletes are meeting its eligibility standards through watered down courseloads or the sort of academic shenanigans  that have been revealed in recent controversies at Auburn and Florida State Universities and the University of Michigan .
But the association's report Tuesday on the performance of more than 6,000 Division I teams on the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate measure also revealed undeniably that the group is willing, as never before, to punish colleges when their athletes fail to perform in the classroom. A total of 218 teams at 123 colleges  -- there are 329 members of Division I, and a college-by-college database of their outcomes appears here  -- will be penalized in some form this year because they fell short of the NCAA's minimum standards in the 2006-7 academic year.
One hundred thirteen of those teams will lose scholarships because their 2006-7 APR score fell below the NCAA's threshold of 925 (out of 1,000) and because at least one athlete left college in poor academic standing; 35 of those teams, and 44 additional squads, will receive a public warning because they scored below 900 in multiple years and are on track for "historical" penalties. And a total of 26 teams face scholarship losses and restrictions in practice time because they qualified for historical penalties for the second straight year.
If some of those teams fall short again next year, they could be barred from postseason competition, which is about the most serious penalty the NCAA imposes on rule breakers. "Those are serious penalties, and a number of teams face them," said Myles Brand, the association's president.
During Tuesday's announcement,  Brand and other association leaders spent far more time emphasizing how much progress Division I teams have made than they did discussing the toughness and significance of the penalties being imposed. But in their eyes, the two are intimately connected.
"We are taking action when it's needed to make sure our member institutions, and especially [athletics directors] and coaches, recognize that we're serious" about academic performance, said Walt Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chairman of the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance. "But the real goal is to enhance the academic success of our student-athletes."
On that front, Harrison and Brand argued, the signs are positive. The four-year average Academic Progress Rate rose by one point across Division I from 2005-6 to 2006-7, to 961, and the score rose or stayed level in 17 of 19 men's sports and 15 of 19 women's sports. Some of the lowest-performing sports have seen the most significant increases, with the APR in baseball climbing by 12 points and the average rate in football by 11 points since 2003-4. (To calculate the APR, each scholarship athlete can receive a maximum of two points per term: one for finishing in good academic standing and another for remaining enrolled at the institution. A team’s APR is calculated by dividing the total number of points earned by the players on its roster for the year by the total number of points possible, then multiplying by 1,000.)
Brand cited as another sign of progress the fact that far fewer teams than predicted faced scholarship reductions when the second phase of the so-called historical penalties kicked in this year. At this time last year, the association projected that many hundreds of teams could be affected this year when the association generally lifted the "squad size reductions" that blunted the impact of the rules on teams with relatively few players. That only about 150 teams faced "immediate" scholarship reductions is one of numerous "genuine signs of measurable improvement," Brand said.
And last month, 712 teams earned recognition  for placing in the top 10 percent of their peers in terms of the APR scores.
Troubling signs remain, though, Brand acknowledged.
Fifty three men's basketball teams -- about one of every six Division I teams -- were among the 218 to be penalized, and 39 of them lost scholarships. Twenty-six teams faced what the NCAA calls "occasion 2" penalties, meaning that they continued to fall below the 900 academic progress rate threshold for the second straight year even though the NCAA had worked one on one with them to try to improve their performance. And some number of colleges, Brand said, "have seen a steady decline in their APR scores in last four years.... For them, the situation is dire." (Brand declined to identify which colleges are in that situation, and it is impossible to identify them from the information on the NCAA's Web site because the association has removed the college-by-college data for previous years.
But it is not hard to identify colleges that are clearly struggling with meeting the NCAA's new academic regime. Institutions such as California State University at Sacramento (seven), Delaware State University four), Florida International University (five), New Mexico State University (six), San Jose State University, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham are among those that have multiple teams facing penalties for falling short of the NCAA's academic guidelines. Four of Sacramento's troubled teams qualify for historical penalties, meaning that they have been chronic problems, as are all four of Delaware State's low-performing teams, two of Florida International's, one of New Mexico State's, and all six of San Jose State's and Alabama-Birmingham's.
Brand and Hartford's Harrison said that having multiple teams fall below the mark should be a warning sign to a college's president and other leaders that something may be wrong in how the institution is allocating its funds. "The president shoud be alerted to the problem and review the approach taken by the athletic department," Brand said, posing the question: "Are we spending the dollars we're investing in athletics in the right way?" The goal of an athletics department should be to make academic opportunities available to athletes, he said, and repeated failure to improve academically raises the question of "are those academic opportunities being made available?"
"It [may make] more sense to put money into the development of academic resources than into the development of new suites" in a football stadium, Brand said.
Having "multisport problems," Harrison added, "should be a real red flag" for a president. "I hope presidents are taking historical penalties more seriously," he said, because it "suggests that you've had a problem for several years and haven't been addressing it."
Officials at the institutions singled out by the NCAA for having multiple teams with poor historical performance had a range of responses to the attention. All of them said that they were significantly upgrading their academic support services and had seen meaningful improvements in the academic performance of their athletes; the main differences in their reactions depended on how much they believed the NCAA had recognized their progress.
"That we face penalties for the academic performance of our student-athletes is unacceptable," Brian Mackin, athletics director at Alabama-Birmingham, said in an e-mail message. "We are firmly committed to devoting the resources and attention necessary for improvement. We have taken a series of steps over the past two years to underscore this priority and our enhancements will continue this year when we hire two more academic support staff. We have expanded and enhanced our academic center and tripled the number of computers available. And, we have established group math and writing labs so that student athletes can get help in these key subjects. Clearly, our efforts are having an impact: 12 teams (out of 16) have current year APRs that now are above the 925 mark; with continued annual improvements our goal is for all teams to meet or exceed that mark in their four-year rolling average."
Pete Garcia, athletics director at Florida International, praised the NCAA for recognizing that the university had made major changes to rebound from some miserable years in the early part of this decade -- hiring seven new coaches, pouring additional funds into hiring additional tutors and buying laptops for athletes, among other things. From 2005-6 to 2006-7, the Academic Progress Rate of its baseball team rose by 200 points (from 725 to 925) and of its football team by 59 points, to 881 (still well below the NCAA's threshold). The university still has its problems -- its basketball team's four-year APR still sits at 854 (down from the previous year), for instance.
But the NCAA granted Florida International's request for a waiver of some penalties in football and baseball, awarding its full allotment of baseball scholarships and obviating the prospect of historical penalties in football.
"We can't go back and fix" the older years, Garcia said, but the NCAA seems willing to focus on the question of "how much did you improve this year?.... As soon as they see progress there, they're willing to give schools relief."
Not in every case, to the dismay of officials at San Jose State. In a prepared statement, they said they had "worked tirelessly" to appeal the NCAA's decision to impose historical penalties on the university's teams, which they said fails to credit San Jose State for the widespread changes it has put in place since 2005, when since a new president, athletics director and football coach came into their jobs. The four-year rolling average punishes the university for the fact that 58 football players left the university after the previous coach did. Over the last two years, the university has raised its overall Academic Progress Rate for athletes to 936 from 903, and the football team has raised its fall 2007 APR to 913 "and projections show a minimum of a 900 APR for the 2007-08 academic year -- on track and ahead of NCAA mandates."
"We cannot undo what has been done, but we can shape the future," the statement said. "We remain steadfastly committed to marching down the path to academic success that has been laid since January 2005."