For the second year in a row, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has temporarily banned at least one team from postseason play because of its athletes’ poor academic performance.
The men’s basketball team at Portland State University becomes only the fourth team in NCAA history to suffer this punishment, after three teams met a similar fate last year  when the penalty was formally introduced. The team discovered its fate Wednesday, as the NCAA released its annual set of Academic Progress Rates  (APR) – a score for each Division I sports team that is based on the eligibility and retention of each player during a four-year period. The current APR is based on scores from the 2005-6 academic year through the 2008-9 academic year.
Teams receiving an APR less than 925 (out of possible 1,000) face a series of immediate penalties, including reductions in the number of athletic scholarships they can offer and the number of practices they are allowed to hold. Teams that retain an APR of less than 900 for several years face harsher historical penalties, including a one-year postseason ban and restricted Division I membership for its entire athletic program.
The men’s basketball team at Portland State has an APR of 865 . As the team’s APR has been below the 900-point benchmark for three years, it is now ineligible to compete in March Madness next year.
"This is a very disappointing circumstance," said Torre Chisholm, athletic director at Portland State, in a statement . "The athletic program and university have been working very aggressively to improve the academic performance of student-athletes. This penalty is the result of past academic deficiencies. Unfortunately, men's basketball had fallen into a very deep APR hole. We just couldn't climb out of it fast enough."
Nine other teams faced the possibility of receiving a postseason ban this year because of their historically poor APRs; however, these teams were given conditional waivers from the NCAA because they were able to demonstrate significant and continued academic improvement since their APRs dipped below the 900-point benchmark. The teams that narrowly escaped the NCAA’s second-harshest penalty are the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s men’s basketball and football teams, Colorado State University’s men’s basketball team, Florida International University’s baseball team, Jacksonville State University’s men’s basketball team, Southeastern Louisiana State University’s men’s basketball team, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s football team, Texas Southern University’s men’s basketball team and Weber State University’s football team.
Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president for academic and membership affairs, noted that these teams must meet certain goals – which they set out in APR improvement plans they submitted to the NCAA – during the next three years or they could fall back and receive the postseason ban for which they were just given a reprieve.
Escaping the Death Penalty
This was the first year that a team’s historically poor APR could have put its entire athletics program at risk – a penalty that, by NCAA rule, comes when a team has an APR less than 900 for four consecutive years. Though this was the first year that such a penalty could have been levied – given the relative newness of the NCAA’s academic reform system – the three teams that earned postseason bans last year  and appeared on track to end up with restricted Division I membership for their entire athletics programs this year changed their fortunes.
The football team at Jacksonville State improved its APR from 882  to 909  in one year, bringing it comfortably above the historical penalty threshold. Centenary College, in Louisiana, moved from Division I to the non-scholarship Division III , helping it to avoid punishment over its men’s basketball team, which had a near division-worst APR of 825  last year.
The football team at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga improved its APR from 870  to 885  in one year. Though this is the fourth consecutive year that the team’s APR has been below the 900-point threshold, the team and its entire athletics program was given a reprieve from the “death penalty.” Nor was last year’s postseason ban imposed again this year. Instead, Chattanooga’s football team has fewer athletic scholarships to offer and has to practice fewer hours per week than they did last year.
Lennon suggested that the NCAA’s reprieve of Chattanooga did not reflect a hesitance to levy its harshest punishment for a team’s poor academic performance. Instead, he argued that it had more to do with encouragement and recognizing that the team and institution met certain goals that they had promised to the NCAA, even though the team's APR remained below the penalty threshold for a fourth year.
“The main goal here is not to penalize,” said Lennon, noting that reprieves from penalties are granted by the NCAA on a case-by-base basis . Encouraging improvement among struggling teams, he said, is more important.
Good News and Bad News
By and large, the APR of Division I athletes has improved noticeably since the measure was introduced six years ago. The overall APR for all athletes, for instance, is 967, up three points from last year. Also, less than 6 percent of teams have an APR less than 925 and less than 2 percent have an APR less than 900.
This year, 137 teams at 80 different institutions were penalized. Still, though the number of penalties levied has dropped, the types of teams on which they are levied remain the same: most of these teams are male and from institutions that traditionally have less money to spend on athletics. Also, perhaps predictably, men’s basketball and football remain the two worst-performing sports, with division-wide APRs of 940 and 944, respectively.
Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance and president of the University of Hartford, said he would like to see sport-specific rule changes made in men’s basketball and football to improve their APRs. He noted that academic reforms specific to baseball have improved its division-wide APR to an all-time high of 954, up eight points from last year. Among other rule changes aimed at improving baseball academic performance, the time period during which baseball players could transfer between institutions was limited. One of the more controversial measures being considered for men's basketball  would require summer school for all players.
Harrison said he is particularly concerned by low APR scores at what the NCAA defines as “low-resource institutions” – institutions whose athletics departments spend in the bottom 10 percent per capita on their athletes and also have high Pell Grant eligibility. Among Division I institutions, historically black colleges and universities, for example, often fall into this category.
In sports like basketball, the gap between the haves and have-nots is rather striking. The latest single-year APR for men’s basketball teams at “low-resource institutions” is 885, and the latest single-year APR for men’s basketball teams at all the other Division I institutions is 956.
Harrison also acknowledged concern with the APR of transfer athletes from community colleges, whose latest single-year APR is 926. In men’s basketball, the APR for community college transfers drops to 912. For Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) transfers, the APR is 894, and for Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) transfers, the APR is a dismal 888.
In addition to considering how to improve the academic performance of athletes at “low-resource institutions ” and those who transfer from community colleges, Harrison noted, the NCAA is about to conduct a major assessment of the APR program  to see how it has done in the first six years of its existence. Among the topics up for consideration is whether to move the 925 and 900 APR benchmarks for immediate and historical penalties.