AS IT HAS DONE for each of the past seven years, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) last month imposed one-year postseason bans on academically underperforming teams. This year, however, the hit list included the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball squad, a three-time national champion and a powerhouse in the Big East Conference. Despite the subsequent outcry, each of these teams, including Connecticut, had fallen beneath the NCAA’s mandated academic cutoffs. Walter Harrison, the chairman of the NCAA’s Committee on Academic Performance, has said that the decision “sends a message to our teams and to our critics that we mean business.” Let’s hope he’s right.
Academic achievement has long been an issue in college athletics, where universities funnel athletes through lucrative programs with little attention to their education. When their collegiate careers end, a top-dollar professional contract likely won’t await them. In fact, in many cases, it’s just the opposite: Given that not all of these athletes graduate, a significant number are left after four years with no career prospects and, worse, limited means of attaining them. As Education Secretary Arne Duncanasked last year on the opposite page: “If a team fails to graduate even half of its players, how serious are the institution and coach about preparing their student-athletes for life?”
Although similar NCAA reforms haven’t always worked in the past, it’s good to see the association step up its commitment to academic performance in such a visible way. The association keeps track of each team’s Academic Progress Rate, measuring athletes’ path toward graduation with real data. Meeting the mandated cutoffs is far from difficult, and the NCAA is right to expect that all teams — even the most prominent — will play by the rules. Along the same lines, the NCAA has also launched two additional policies, slated to take effect in four years, that should further emphasize this message. The first increases the current eligibility requirement for student-athletes in terms of high school GPAs; the second raises the GPAs for transfers from two-year institutions before they can play for four-year institutions.
While the NCAA can impose rules and regulations, however, universities are ultimately the ones that have to follow them. As well-intentioned as these reforms may be, they won’t mean anything if universities don’t match the same commitment to academic achievement. It’s true that schools whose teams fall below the NCAA’s mandated academic cutoff — such as the 15 sanctioned last month — must submit to the association a detailed plan for improving the academic performance of their student athletes as well as evidence of an internal investigation into the root of the problem. But paperwork alone isn’t enough.
As the postseason bans show, it’s time for universities to implement policies that take into account the best interests of their athletes, not their athletic programs. These include coaches imposing actual consequences on students for missing class, administrators devoting more resources to hiring committed advising and tutoring staffs, and university presidents more actively managing their athletic departments. These athletes, after all, are student-athletes, and they deserve the attention a college education should afford any student.