NCAA’s Mark Emmert calls for tougher academic standards for athletic programs


NCAA President Mark Emmert, right, talks with Northwestern University President Emeritus Henry Bienen, left, and Knight Commission Co-Chairman Brit Kirwan. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)
October 24, 2011

NCAA President Mark Emmert said Monday he would urge the NCAA Board of Directors this week to step up the timetable for forcing athletic programs to meet minimum academic standards to be eligible to participate in the postseason.

Speaking before the reform-minded Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Emmert said he will push for enacting the new standards, which were tentatively agreed upon in August, as early as next season’s NCAA basketball tournaments and that they be extended to bowl game participation.

Had such requirements been in place last season, national champion Connecticut would have been shut out of the men’s basketball tournament, Emmert said.

“If you’re going to be eligible for postseason play, you have to be able to do more than win games,” Emmert said.

The academic threshold for participating in the postseason was among a laundry list of reforms NCAA executives have fast-tracked since August, with concern among college presidents growing over athletic scandals that have erupted at prominent universities such as Ohio State, Tennessee, North Carolina and Miami.

It’s a step the Knight Commission has advocated for 10 years, and the decade-long incubation sheds light on the resistance and inertia that have stymied efforts at substantive NCAA reform for so long.

But Emmert, barely one year into the job as NCAA president, was an enthusiastic champion Monday, saying he would urge the NCAA Board of Directors this week to step up the timetable for the standards and ensure that they apply to football bowl games, as well.

The standard is expected to be phased in over two years, with teams initially having to post an Academic Progress Rate of 900 to qualify for the postseason. Connecticut’s men’s basketball team’s most recent score was 893. After two years, the minimum APR score will jump to 930, equivalent to a 50 percent graduation rate.

There was less unanimity over an NCAA proposal to let conferences increase athletic scholarships by $2,000 to more closely mirror the full cost of attendance. The Knight Commission supports such an increase only for athletes with financial need.

Robert Kustra, president of Boise State, counseled against it, arguing that it would only deepen the divide between the five richest conferences (those with an automatic berth in a major bowl game) and those struggling to keep up.

Kustra had an ally in Louisiana State President Michael Martin, who argued that the extra $2,000 would fuel growing resentment over the millions being spent on college sports during a time of financial austerity.

“I’ve got 1,400 faculty who’d love to have $2,000 more a year,” Martin said. “I’m reminded by the faculty senate with great regularity how much we spend on athletics. . . . at the same time faculty are sitting in rooms where the roof leaks and conditions are far from optimal.”

On that point, commission members reviewed data showing that spending on college sports is growing at a faster annual rate (12 percent) than academic spending (5 percent) in the major conferences. The greatest disparity is in the Southeastern Conference, where schools spend an average of $13,471 per student each year and $156,833 per athlete each year.

Moreover, as a result of recently renegotiated TV contracts, the five biggest conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and SEC — will reap nearly $14 billion in the next 15 to 20 years. For members of those major conferences, that translates to an average annual cut of $17 million, with Pacific-12 schools leading the pack (collecting $20.8 million per year from TV revenue).

Those contracts, driven largely by broadcasters’ demand for regular season football games, go a long way toward explaining the chaos in conference alignments, with schools bailing from one conference to another for a bigger guaranteed payday.

Big-time college football was the elephant in the room Monday.

It’s what’s driving spending to unsustainable levels for all but the major players. It’s what’s fueling the rash of conference-jumping. And it’s the force over which the NCAA has virtually no authority.

As a result, Knight Commission co-chair William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system, said the panel will next tackle the peculiar governance of college football.

Composed primarily of college presidents, the Knight Commission has advocated reform of college sports since 1986, stressing the need for higher academic standards, more attention to the well-being of student-athletes and greater transparency regarding the finances of college sports. But it has no authority other than the moral authority of its members, who use the panel as a bully pulpit.

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