NCAA academic reform has hurt higher ed's integrity (essay)

A decade has passed since the National Collegiate Athletic Association rolled out its academic reform package. In that time, there is strong evidence that the reforms designed to open access to higher education to more athletes and punishing coaches and institutions failing at academics came at the expense of the integrity of the academy.  The landscape of the NCAA’s program is scorched with scandals surrounding admissions, academic fraud, major clustering and clever gaming of the system for the wealthiest institutions to avoid penalties. We conclude that it has significantly damaged higher education.    

The NCAA academic reform of 2003 was to become the late Myles Brand’s presidential cornerstone. Known largely for his dismissal of the misbehaving iconic basketball coach Bobby Knight, Brand marshaled support for academic reform by championing access to higher education for more minority athletes who might succeed in college. He vowed to punish institutions, teams and coaches who habitually ran off players and underperformed academically.

In a 2005 NCAA news release, President Brand said, “for the first time, the NCAA is holding teams and institutions accountable for the academic progress and success of their student-athletes,” Brand said. “The goal of the academic reform package is to reinforce good behavior. The new reforms are tough but fair.” Just a year later, Brand declared that the NCAA academic reform “is becoming one of our greatest success stories.”

Years later, his successor as president, Mark Emmert, described the collegiate model of athletics as “providing athletes with world-class educations and world-class opportunities.” While some athletes clearly have enjoyed educational and professional opportunities from their experiences in college sport, it is difficult to reconcile the noble goals of these two NCAA presidents with the consequences that academic reform programs have imposed on American higher education.

Some History

The first decade of NCAA academic reform ushered in an era of unprecedented academic focus on the performance of athletes in college sports and the graduation records of teams.  In 2003, the new legislation included a change in initial eligibility standards, raising the number of college preparatory courses and abandoning the minimum test score requirements of a 17 ACT or an 820 SAT. 

Although vigorously and successfully defending the inclusion of minimum test score requirements in a 1997 legal challenge in the Cureton vs. NCAA case, the NCAA changed its minimum entrance standards to provide greater access for minority athletes who argued standardized test bias. Theoretically, it became possible to establish athletic eligibility without answering a single question correctly on the exams. 

"Continuing eligibility" was renamed "progress toward degree," and percentage toward degree requirements increased slightly.  A new metric, the academic progress rate (APR), was devised to measure team performance at maintaining athlete eligibility and retention.  Minimum team performance thresholds were devised to roughly equate to a 50 percent federal graduation rate (FGR).  Teams scoring below .925 on their eligibility and retention scale would be punished through loss of financial aid, and those scoring below .900 would be cited for more serious loss of scholarships, postseason bans, and potential restricted NCAA membership.  Dissatisfied with the FGR, the NCAA created its own Graduation Success Rate, adjusting for the transfer pattern of athletes.

In spite of the APR program’s intent, gains in minorities’ access to higher education have been minimal. In a 2011 commentary, one of us argued that an NCAA participation study from 1999 to 2009 demonstrated that since the onset of the academic reform program, gains in minority access to higher education through big-time college sports have been negligible, showing only a slight increase in the participation of African Americans in football and men’s basketball. Prior to 2003, African-American participation was steadily increasing, and the relaxed initial eligibility test score standards may have simply replaced better-qualified minorities with less-prepared students.

In an effort to subtly apply academic accountability to coaches in 2010, the NCAA assigned average team APR scores to head coaches’ portfolios.  A database of APR team scores was made available to the news media and public to examine all head coaches’ APR records, which followed them from one institution to another.  Although the actual graduation records of athletes they recruited was not calculated, it was hoped that these scores would offer a gauge to measure a head coach’s attention to the academic performance of his or her players.

Reinforcing Bad Behavior

From the start, the APR program came under criticism by the media and professionals in athletic academic counseling, who speculated that the changes would be a catalyst for large-scale cheating.  Cheating by students to gain admission and stay in college is nothing new to colleges. However, the stakes to recruit and keep elite athletes in football and basketball have grown. Their handlers, coaches, institutional staff members and even faculty have employed clever methods to get athletes admitted and stay academically eligible to play. Within two years of APR’s onset, Pete Thamel of The New York Times exposed a quick-fix $399 high school diploma mill for elite athletes to obtain whatever grades were necessary to establish NCAA eligibility at University High in Miami.

The NCAA expressed its shock and outrage at the affront to the integrity of its standards and the institutions that admitted these NCAA qualifiers to play sports, and launched an investigation of the fraud. The following year Thamel uncovered several more suspect prep schools. These prep schools identified athletic talent and operated freely under the watchful eyes of the NCAA staffers at their eligibility center, whose jobs were to review and monitor transcripts and records of athletes.  Athletes graduating from these schools were placed into academically competitive institutions, athletically eligible but with little or no hope of a meaningful education.

As the stakes for success in football and men’s basketball grew with the salaries of coaches and athletics administrators, admitting and maintaining the eligibility of elite athletes became paramount.  Abandoning an imperfect minimum test standard opened subjective grade performance and its accompanying grade inflation as the primary means of athletic eligibility. 

If standardized test scores posed a problem, enterprising coaches and athlete handlers found ways of getting talent on the court or field through higher high school grades. Hiring stand-ins to take standardized tests has been a longstanding tactic for students interested in gaining admission to competitive institutions. Substitutes for athletes attempting to meet minimum NCAA test score requirements became more common. One notable attempt occurred in 2007, when the basketball great Derrick Rose allegedly found someone to take the SAT for him to meet NCAA requirements.

Coaches and athletic directors recognized the importance of avoiding NCAA penalties by keeping athletes enrolled and in good standing.  Protecting the investments in their coaches and recruits became an important new strategy for a successful football and basketball program management. A structure was developed to maintain the eligibility and retention of high-risk athlete investments. Exclusive multimillion-dollar, athlete-only academic support facilities were built to house academic advisers and an army of learning specialists and tutors to remediate those with skill deficiencies. Many institutions hired staff to follow athletes to class to check their attendance. According to a 2009 NCAA study, budgets for academic spending exploded at Bowl Championship Subdivision institutions.

The focus of the elaborate new models of academic support is to manage underprepared athletes needing significant remediation. As learning specialists demonstrated that close supervision and massive remedial and tutorial assistance could successfully maintain eligibility and APR scores, academically selective universities became more comfortable with taking more risk on underprepared athletes.  Maintaining the eligibility of underprepared athletes have ushered in a number of high-profile academic fraud cases. The notoriety accompanied with winning teams that qualify for basketball’s March Madness, bowl games and BCS championships brought an unusual measure of embarrassment and disgrace when academic violations were uncovered by media. 

Traditionally very competitive universities known more for their academics more than athletics, such as Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, were mired in academic scandal that involved keeping their athletes eligible. Other scandals at Florida State University included widescale cheating that resulted in the ineligibility of 61 athletes. With the rewards so great, the need to win on the field has shifted to the classroom with the same strategic fervor.

Gaming APR

During the past decade, protecting the corporate product and respectability of the institution and its celebrity coach has included sophisticated methods of gaming APR scores through clever academic manipulation.  In a special commentary for, we demonstrated various permissible manipulations of the APR metric to maximize their team scores and giving the false impression of athlete academic performance.  Such methods, all within the boundaries of NCAA rules, are commonly applied at institutions with financial resources.

They include the liberal use of summer sessions to repair APR points, using NCAA waivers and exceptions to relieve athletes who failed to meet eligibility standards for initial and continuing eligibility and progress toward a degree, returning former players to the university for and providing additional assistance to complete degree programs to gain bonus points, and creative advisement within institutions for underprepared athletes.

Hunting for Majors

Finding courses and academic majors for marginal athletes to maintain their eligibility, finding an easier path to graduation, and avoiding penalties have become athletics department strategies to keep athletes on the field. Learning specialists at Florida State University and the University of North Carolina noted increased admissions of athletes who could barely read and an overwhelming pressure to keep athletes eligible. Football and men’s basketball athletes are clustered into majors that offer the least amount of academic rigor so they can spend more time at the business of quasi-professional college sports entertainment. An NCAA study showed the athletic commitment of the football and basketball athlete to be 45 hours per week of largely physically demanding activity. Athletes, particularly those who are underprepared with severe reading deficiencies and overtasked with heavy athletic commitments, often settle for or are steered into the curricular paths of least resistance. For the most vulnerable athletes, the goal of college life is to maintain APR eligibility rather than obtaining a promised world-class education.

Recognizing the underpreparedness of some athletes and the faulty prediction of its original penalty thresholds, the NCAA passed a major revision of its initial eligibility standards in 2012. New standards included an “academic redshirt year” of restricting immediate competition for those athletes with high school grade point averages in core college units with less than 2.30.  Other changes included recognition of the poor performance of junior college transfer athletes and raising their grade point average to compete immediately.  Ironically, the restrictions on competition in the academic redshirt year permit a full athletic commitment to practice with no requirement for increased time devoted to preparation, remediation and study. One may suppose that these ill-prepared athletes will magically become ready for the rigor of their curriculums.

World-Class Education?

Rather than college presidents working to develop meaningful minimum initial eligibility standards, which ensure the most basic reading and other academic skills to compete in college, their focus has been on revising failed eligibility standards, the expansion of television contracts and conference realignment, and promoting a “game changing” new APR metric for penalizing teams and institutions for bad behavior. College presidents, under pressure from influential and wealthy football enamored board members, applaud the superficial APR scores, while poorly funded historically black colleges and universities and institutions from non-BCS schools disproportionately suffer the brunt of established NCAA penalties.  

Presidents of Division I universities, with the assistance of their athletics programs and some faculty enamored with athletics, knowingly accept watered-down curriculums for specially admitted underprepared athletes as the price of big-time college sport. They willingly leverage loose admissions standards with special exceptions reserved for athletes, massive remedial programs and less rigorous academic majors to maintain or achieve winning programs to keep their donors and regents pleased and proud. The promise of a world-class education and opportunity is a great hoax.


The noble ideals for academic accountability that Myles Brand intended as a cornerstone for his presidency has morphed into a smokescreen rather than the meaningful embedding of athletics into the mission of the university.  APR scores obfuscate athletes’ academic achievement in meaningful degrees that prepare them for the future with an obscure measure of eligibility and retention. The academic reform program has led to an increased number of woefully underprepared athletes entering our universities being kept eligible on academic life support without the chance of a world-class education or a meaningful college degree. 

The explosion of resource allocation to the now-common academic centers exclusively for athletes, increased staffs in academic advisers, learning specialists tutors, and class checkers to maintain the eligibility of these athletic entertainers further separates college athletics from integration with other students and the educational mission of the university.  The indeterminable costs of academic scandal to outstanding institutions have indeed left a shameful scar on academe, causing the resignations of talented college presidents. The massive bureaucracy of academic support for athletes has changed from augmenting the pursuit of education to primarily maintaining APR scores through eligibility and retention and diminishes the value of their education and university of students in general. 

The spectacle of college sport does not need to come with such a tremendous cost to the university. Reform must begin with academic preparedness. Reasonable admissions standards that include a minimum standardized test standard to ensure adequate basic skills alleviates some of the need for massive remediation. Further limiting athletic time commitments to provide athletes the opportunity to take advantage of their educational opportunity might turn the focus on the promise of educational opportunities the NCAA proudly professes.

Gerald S. Gurney is assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma and former senior associate athletics director for academics there. Richard M. Southall is an associate professor of sport administration and coordinator of the graduate sport administration program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Testing of sickle cell trait for athletes unwise (essay)

This week, members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III will vote on a medically controversial and unsubstantiated policy regarding sickle cell trait (SCT) testing for Division III athletes.  Based on the current medical literature, the delegates would be wise to vote against the proposal.

The policy stems from a 2009 settlement by the NCAA of a lawsuit involving the death of a Rice University football player. The death was attributed to SCT, and the NCAA  began recommending that athletics departments confirm SCT status in all athletes, if it is not already known, during their required medical examinations. While individuals can opt out if they agree to education and sign liability waivers, mandatory SCT education and confirmation of SCT status of athletes began in Division I in 2010, and in Division II in 2011. The current NCAA proposal would extend the policy to Division III starting in 2013.  

SCT is a genetic condition involving red blood cells. Unlike sickle cell disease, which can have serious health consequences, SCT individuals do not typically experience any symptoms and may not know that they have SCT.  The red blood cells in individuals with sickle cell disease or SCT can become deformed and lead to health problems. This is known as sickling, and is far more common in individuals with sickle cell disease.

Recent reports in the medical literature have suggested that SCT may contribute to death in athletes. The topic remains highly controversial, with some authors suggesting that exertional sickling has killed or led to collapse of many athletes and military trainees. Other authors disagree, and suggest that SCT screening is unnecessary and may be harmful, and that implementing education and universal safety measures would protect all athletes.

In January, 2012 the American Society of Hematology (ASH) issued a statement opposing the NCAA SCT screening policy as a means to reduce exertion-related illness or death. Other expert groups and medical organizations, such as the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and a Department of Health and Human Services advisory committee, have published papers or statements that recognize but do not endorse mandatory pre-participation SCT testing.  The authors of these papers and statements advocate for further research, education of athletes and coaches, and implementation of safety measures rather than screening. 

Hematology and sports medicine experts are correct in not endorsing mandatory testing because the pathophysiology of SCT-associated death remains unknown. The well-intentioned pro-SCT testing argument is based on limited information obtained from autopsies and case reports, and may not have fully investigated other potential contributors to the athlete’s demise. The presumption that SCT contributed to the athlete’s death because deformed/sickled cells were found at autopsy may not be accurate.  The problem is that the presence of sickled cells in postmortem tissue specimens from a person with SCT does not guarantee pre-mortem sickling.  Red blood cells can become deformed in SCT patients when they are deprived of oxygen. Since this is exactly what happens when a person dies, we might expect to see sickled cells in an autopsy of a patient with SCT. As one author wrote: “Sickling seen in postmortem samples is most likely an artifact of death.”

More importantly, good medical policy should rest on a foundation of evidence-based medicine.  Unfortunately, well-controlled, hypothesis-driven prospective studies on SCT and exertional collapse are lacking.  More research is needed to understand the pathophysiology of death in athletes with SCT, and determine whether screening high-risk populations reduces mortality.  It is particularly interesting that two recent papers on SCT, co-authored by the NCAA’s director of health and safety, David Klossner, and published after the 2010 NCAA Division I SCT rule went into effect, have concluded that additional research is needed to understand the value of screening for SCT in athletes.

Epidemiologists have noted that an extremely small number of deaths in a highly prevalent carrier state implies that other genetic or environmental factors play a role. SCT is considered a fairly common condition, yet only a small number of athletes have presumably succumbed from SCT over the past 30-40 years. The reported deaths also have a high predilection for Division I football players. As one study noted, all but 2 of 19 deaths associated with SCT in NCAA athletes since 1973 have been in Division I football players. There were no deaths related to SCT in Division III athletes, including Division III football players.

The proposed testing method has also raised concerns. Due to cost, the NCAA is recommending that schools use a blood test that experts consider to be inferior and less accurate than more expensive methods.  The NCAA-proposed test does not have the ability to identify other forms of blood disorders. False negative tests would provide false reassurance,  potentially putting athletes at even greater risk. Finally, athlete and military recruit deaths have occurred despite knowledge of sickle cell trait in the individual.

While the NCAA should be praised for its interest in athlete safety, it has misrepresented medical data in its quest to mandate SCT testing for all athletes.  For example, in the October 2012 NCAA DIII monthly update the NCAA stated that: “Another study, published in 2012, concluded that student-athletes with sickle cell trait have a relative risk of exertion-related death that is 37 times higher than those without it.” However, the original paper notes that: “All deaths associated with SCT occurred in black Division I football athletes. The risk of exertional death in Division I football players with SCT was 37 times higher than in athletes without SCT.”  

That is an important distinction when considering a screening program that would annually affect thousands of athletes. The same NCAA Division III update also stated that “13.6 percent of Division III schools that participated reported removing a student-athlete with sickle cell trait from a competition, practice or workout because they were concerned they may be developing a dangerous condition secondary to their sickle cell trait status.” However, supporting evidence that patient symptoms were due to complications from SCT is not provided, and their condition cannot be attributed to SCT.  The NCAA’s assertion that “the knowledge of a student-athlete’s sickle cell trait status can lead to appropriate precautions and interventions” is not supported in the available medical literature and remains controversial.

The cost of an SCT screening program, while secondary to an institution’s interest in protecting its students, must also be considered.  The NCAA-published basic solubility test costs between $8.50 and $32.50 per test. The $8.50 test does not include phlebotomy costs, which would add $5 to $10 per test.  Some schools do not have easy access to the lab associated with the NCAA pricing and are looking at costs as high as $75 per athlete tested.  Administrative costs associated with tracking results and compliance have not been included in the NCAA analysis and could place a significant burden on DIII sports medicine departments, which typically have fewer resources than other NCAA divisions. Most importantly, the cost of an unproven screening program may divert funding away from other important health issues.

Rather than succumb to fear or the NCAA’s institutional momentum, the Division III delegates voting on the SCT screening measure should base their vote on sound scientific principles and recognize that many caring and responsible physicians and medical organizations have opposed screening for SCT.  The NCAA has exaggerated existing medical data and is promoting use of an inferior screening test that may lead to false reassurances. 

The delegates would be wise to pass a measure that promotes further research on the role of SCT in exertion related collapse and death, emphasizes education of athletes around SCT and other issues that may cause harm, promotes a voluntary testing process that includes a personal discussion between an athlete and their physician, and most importantly, adopts universal safety precautions and measures to enhance the safety of all athletes.

Mark Peluso is medical director and head team physician at Middlebury College. Paul Berkner is the medical director and team physician at Colby College. Both are active in national sports medicine and pediatric groups.

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