Wednesday, November 2, 2011

NCAA Reform: Great Start & the Battle Has Just Begun

Last week the NCAA Presidents on the Board of Directors passed some of the most significant athletic reforms in thirty years. The NCAA Presidents confirmed their initial start at their retreat and expanded their work. Prodded by scandals, their own desire to reform and Mark Emmert’s relentless leadership, they acted on four major changes.

The reforms cluster in two related but vital areas. All are designed to improve student welfare and improve student athlete academic performance and they will face stiff resistance from many coaches and athletic directors.

  •  They authorized Conferences to permit schools to raise the full grant in aid to student athletes by 2000 dollars over the existing room, board, books and tuition. This attempt to achieve real “cost of attendance” and give student athletes enough money to pay for transportation, snacks, movies and normal living of being a student. This emulates common scholarship offers to top academic students.
  • They prohibited school teams who do not graduate their student athletes at a rate of at least fifty percent from participating in NCAA tournaments or NCAA certified bowl games. This technically covers schools that do not achieve what is called an APR of 930. This is an algorithm that measures the rate at which players on a team stay in school and stay eligible. This decision builds on an early decision to raise the minimum APR requirement to 930. The original APR number had accreted so many exceptions that it no longer measured a fifty percent graduation rate. Like all major changes it will have a three to four year vesting period.
  •   They put new limits upon the qualifications that student athlete freshman must meet to be eligible. Unlike past attempts to raise qualifications, this does not take away a year of eligibility. The new approach permits a student athlete to keep four years of eligibility but forces them to have restricted practice and devote more time to academics during their first year in college.
  • They authorized schools to award grant in aids as four year blocks rather than on a year-to-year basis. This gives schools the option to do this and will put immense pressure upon everyone to do this since if one school does it, it becomes a considerable recruiting advantage.
The first point to remember is that this was not easy. Reformers and faculty have been pushing for cost of attendance for decades. The reforms have been stopped by the death by a thousand cut process of the NCAA and by the virulent opposition of the midrange football schools and many basketball schools who do not want to spend the money and fear it will only reinforce the have and have not world. Basketball coaches will be up in arms over their inability to play freshman immediately under the new academic eligibility rules.

The whole process could still falter. The NCAA is a membership organization and Emmert’s strategy has depended upon using the Presidents and the Board to get things accomplished. This bypasses the paralyzed and cumbersome process that takes 2-3 years and kills most good ideas. If enough membership schools can get a petition, they will seek an override vote. First they can send legislation back to the Board and then seek a full membership vote. Membership votes have  killed many good ideas in the past where the midrange schools and basketball schools ally and stop “expensive” reforms. Already coaches and athletic directors are mobilizing to stop it. It is also where coaches have great sway given their input with athletic directors.

For me the increase in awards are about simple justice. The average elite student athletes now works 20-40 hours a week for nine months a year on their teams. Even in off-season they work on conditioning, tape watching and skill development as well as informal scrimmages. These student athletes have no time to hold outside jobs given their commitment to the team and the implicit conditions of their scholarships.

In addition a high percentage of athletes in the revenue producing football and men’s basketball teams come from poor backgrounds. They have very little money and scrape by with no way to call parents, return home on holidays or spend funds on small things like movies or hanging out with friends. During the breaks between dorms and apartments, they live a precarious life sleeping on the floors of friends or spending holidays with a few caring parents. Another strong hope is that actually giving them enough to live rather than scrape by at penury will lesson the incentive to take small sums of money from agents and runners or sell their paraphernalia for pocket change. This won’t stop all of it but a surprising number of the cases of money from agents or selling paraphernalia involves very small amounts doled out to help students live.

This is not a perfect solution but much better than what we have now. Most of us who have fought for this would much prefer $3200 that is the best estimate we have of the real cost differential.

Quite frankly, all the schools have gotten away with grant in aids that are too low and should have to pay the real cost for their student athletes. These schools have held the NCAA and student athletes hostage for years. This makes strong sense for reasons of justice and fairness to the student athletes. All the BCS conferences will do this and reluctantly the other conferences will follow suite. The nice part about this is that once one conference does it, everyone else will have to do this for competitive reasons. That is what the Presidents and Emmert are relying on.

Coaches and athletic directors hate the next reform that permits schools to award grant in aid for four years subject to meeting basic academic progress. The Presidents insisted on this one, and it is important. Right now all grant in aids are given for one year at a time. The coaches and athletic directors believe four-year grants will lose them leverage over problem players. They will be forced to keep players whom they regard as poisonous or disruptive or ones who do not try and hurt the team.
To be honest most schools do their best to make an award a four-year award. First, it is good policy because if you run players off, others will counter recruit against you. Second, most coaches accept that they must be willing to live with their mistakes on talent. If a player brings effort and commitment but may not be as talented or develop as high as coaches hoped, the vast majority of schools live up to the implicit bargain of making a one year grant a four year grant. Most schools, if a player really does not match the school for talent or academics, will help the student athlete find a better fit school and transfer in good standing.

Most schools is not good enough. The real crunch times occur when new coaches come in under pressure to win fast and want their kids to match their system. It also happens when a sitting coach is under pressure and needs to win quickly and wants to change their talent level. It is not unusual for such coaches to try and run student athletes off or use informal and even abusive tactics to get students to leave. The Presidents are clearly aware of these dangers and cases like South Carolina make it clear that given the pressure coaches are under, these abuses could continue. Even though I believe most schools treat these boundary carefully and do not abuse it; enough examples exist to make what the Presidents do make sense.

The Presidents also believe that the much larger financial commitment of a four year award—200,000+ at a private or 120,000 for out of state public—will help silence critics who claim schools exploit student athletes with limited return. This is the Presidents voting no confidence in their athletic administrators and coaches. Expect athletic directors and coaches to fight a guerilla war on this on a school-by-school and case-by case-basis.

The last reforms pump up the APR and culminate a decade long growth in reform that began with Myles Brand and the Presidents. The press rigidly ignores the steady increase in graduation rates among student athletes over the last decade. They also ignore the success in the most at risk and money driven teams of men’s basketball and football. Even the rates of minority graduation have gone up.

The key driver to all this has been the APR rate. This rate monitors retention, staying eligible and meeting required benchmarks. Fear of losing scholarships and worse drives this success. If a team or school does not graduate their athletes at a fifty percent rate as predicted by the APR, they lost scholarships and access to NCAA championships.

This changes everything. Suddenly the coaches’ self interest aligns with academic performance. Coaching jobs depend upon talent on the field. This depends upon recruiting and if they lose scholarships, they lose competitive advantage.

For those who work in the trenches of academic support, the transformation has been amazing. Now coaches willingly meet weekly with athletic support to follow each student’s progress. When coaches evince intense focus on academics student athletes pay attention in a way they never could quite take from the blandishments of academic support staff.

Now the Presidents have upped the ante again. After a four year phase in which makes perfect sense given how hard it will be to change behavior, failed APR teams will not get to the tournaments or bowls. The entire post-season world changes.

This may matter most for the basketball schools that already graduate a paltry number of minority athletes. They, however, depend heavily upon post-season participation in the NCAA tournament and March Madness. Being in the tournament brings them the visibility and stature they crave.

The overwhelming purpose for most schools to invest in sports at this level pays off through the tournament or going to a bowl. Now academic failure immediately eliminates the raison d’ĂȘtre of the team. This change amplifies and powers up the pressure to get academic achievement not just from coaches but to push schools to invest in the level of academic support athletes need. If it really works, it will drive schools to invest more money in academic support to help their underprepared athletes become real college student athletes.

This brings us to the last reform and a very vital one. Most elite football and basketball programs bring in a number of superb athletes who are not academically or culturally prepared for college. Not that they cannot succeed at college but for reasons of situation and talent, they are far behind their compatriots in academic preparation and socialization. They enter college very underprepared often at reading and math levels in the mid or high grade school level. With intense support and commitment, these underprepared student athletes can develop into qualified students, but it takes time.

To be blunt, bringing in an underprepared student athlete who identifies as an athlete not a student and is asked to practice 40 hours a week and compete in a full season and then be a student is too much. Given several lost lawsuits, the NCAA has been paralyzed about raising academic aptitude standards around SAT and ACT tests. They rely heavily upon grade point average that can be a very powerful indicator but often distorts real level given the uneven quality of high schools.

For fifteen years the NCAA has moved to increase the requirements at the high school level to increase student athlete preparation. It has helped slowly but steadily. But it is not enough and too many underprepared and “at risk” student athletes come in and are overwhelmed trying to compete in the first year as students and athletes. This is especially the case in basketball where teams rely heavily upon freshmen.

This new rule, which will depend heavily upon the exact standards set, now permits seriously at risk student athletes to enter college and keep four years of eligibility. But it limits their practice time and will not let them compete there first year. It represents a modified return to freshman ineligibility that no one can afford but most coaches and faculty would love to see returned.

This year of “academic readiness” hopefully will help acclimate the young players who most need it to the culture shock of attending college and learn to be a college student. It gives them a respite to learn to be a student and preserves their future as athletes. But expect huge push back on this. The basketball only schools will be incensed that they actually have to educate their players and many elite coaches who live off of one and done players will oppose this. For basketball more than any other sport, freshman players provide quick fixes and the coaches will be loathe to give this up. They will lobby their athletic directors and Presidents to nullify this rule. 

If done right, it can also address another embarrassment, the one and out basketball players. Most incoming highly recruited basketball players who plan to be one and done are not academic balls of fire. The hope here is that if they are not academically prepared and know they will have to sit a year, they will forgo college and go right to the pros or Europe, but not come to college to sit for a year. It also means that coaches will have to think hard before they go this route and also push student athletes harder to get a better high school preparation.

This is the second installment; a lot more needs to be done. The athletic directors and coaches will fight back one rule at a time, and the Presidents have to stay involved at the campus level. The moral cesspools of recruiting and agents still remains, but in six months the Presidents and Mark Emmert have broken a twenty-year logjam. It is a good start but the effort cannot slack. .

Membership of the NCAA Board

DivisionCommittee PositionsTitleName & InstitutionConferenceTerm
  FBS  Member  President  Harris Pastides
  University of South Carolina, Columbia
  Southeastern ConferenceAPR 2015
  FBS  Member  President  John G. Peters
  Northern Illinois University
  Mid-American ConferenceAPR 2013
  FBS  Member  President  Lou Anna Simon
  Michigan State University
  Big Ten ConferenceAPR 2014
  FBS  Member  President  Nathan O. Hatch
  Wake Forest University
  Atlantic Coast ConferenceAPR 2014
  FBS  Member  President  Sidney McPhee
  Middle Tennessee State University
  Sun Belt ConferenceAPR 2014
  FBS  Member  President  Stan L. Albrecht
  Utah State University
  Western Athletic ConferenceAPR 2014
  FBS  Member  President, President  David Schmidly
  University of New Mexico
  Mountain West ConferenceAPR 2012
  FBS  Member  President, President  Edward Ray
  Oregon State University
  Pac-12 ConferenceAPR 2012
  FBS  Member  President, President  Guy H. Bailey
  Texas Tech University
  Big 12 ConferenceAPR 2014
  FBS  Chair  President, President  Judy Genshaft
  University of South Florida
  Big East ConferenceAPR 2013
  FBS  Member  President, President  Steadman Upham
  University of Tulsa
  Conference USAAPR 2014
  FCS  Member  President  David J. Skorton
  Cornell University
  The Ivy LeagueAPR 2015
  FCS  Member  President  F. Ann Millner
  Weber State University
  Big Sky ConferenceAPR 2012
  FCS  Member  President  William R. Harvey
  Hampton University
  Mid-Eastern Athletic Conf.APR 2013
  FCS  Member  President, President  William A. Meehan
  Jacksonville State University
  Ohio Valley ConferenceAPR 2013
  DI  Member  Chancellor  Timothy P. White
  University of California, Riverside
  Big West ConferenceAPR 2015
  DI  Member  President  E. William Beauchamp, C.S.C
  University of Portland
  West Coast ConferenceAPR 2012
  DI  Member  President, President  David R. Hopkins
  Wright State University
  Horizon LeagueAPR 2015


  1. The last reforms pump up the APR--the problem with this reform is that it will merely lead to a greater concentration of athletes in non-academic degree subjects ("child and family development;" "hospitality services" etc). The ADs will pressure Presidents/Provosts/Faculty to ensure that there are degree subjects that their marginally qualified athletes can handle.

    The more one examines closely College Sports, the clearer it becomes that the only answer is a sharp separation between College and Sport. Reform is futile.

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