By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
After few Division I college sports programs were punished last spring for failing to meet academic standards, NCAA officials vowed that significantly more teams could face sanctions this year, a warning that hangs over today's unveiling of the latest penalties. But some prominent faculty members are saying today's announcement will say as much about the NCAA's academic reform package and its president, Myles Brand, as it will about academic progress among the nation's athletes.
"I don't know that I would say it's as dramatic as the showdown at the OK Corral," said Richard Southall, the director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of Memphis. "But this is a very important thing because this is not only about who he works for but it's also about what he stands for."
The NCAA will reveal today the latest batch of Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, which measure how well a team returns academically eligible athletes semester to semester, as well as the sanctions imposed on underachievers. Brand, who earlier this decade introduced the reform package as a "sea change" in college sports, said last month that 17 percent of Division I men's basketball programs will receive penalties. Some programs, including the University of Maryland's men's basketball team, could lose up to two scholarships next season if they did not demonstrate improvement.
Last year, 44 percent of men's basketball programs and 40 percent of football programs fell below the 925 cutoff score, which equates roughly to a 60 percent graduation rate. But most of the programs, and almost all football and men's basketball programs from power conferences, were spared penalties because teams with smaller rosters were granted exemptions because the limited available data resulted in greater margins of error.
With a fourth year of data now available, the margin for error exemption, also known as the squad-size adjustment, has been eliminated, putting all teams that fall below the 925 threshold at risk. Teams that score below 925 and have a player fail academically and leave school can lose up to 10 percent of their scholarships. What's more, teams that are chronic underachievers could face further penalties that include the loss of practice time and even a postseason ban.
"There is likely to be a really big impact with those [margins for error] being removed," said David Clough, a University of Colorado engineering professor who gave an APR presentation at this year's NCAA convention. "I think we can project that there will be a dramatic change in this."
William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said: "When the reality of this system becomes apparent, there will obviously be an outcry from coaches, athletic directors and boosters. The current Division I board will be under some pressure, and it's important for presidents and others to speak up and make it clear we are not budging on this reform agenda."
But programs with poor scores still can avoid penalties if they submit an academic improvement plan that is approved by the NCAA. Nathan Tublitz, a University of Oregon biology professor who co-chairs the reform-minded Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, cautioned that it is important for the NCAA to impose penalties on poor performers consistently and grant waivers sparingly.
"What Myles is trying to do is turn a very large steamship," Tublitz said of changing the academic culture in college athletics. "It has so much inertia it can't turn quickly on its own, so he has to do it in steps. This is a large step, and he has to make sure he keeps the rudder turned in the right direction."
Which programs receive punishments could be equally noteworthy today. Last year, only one football program from any of the six Bowl Championship Series conferences (Arizona) was punished, and just two men's basketball programs from power conferences (Cincinnati and Iowa State) lost scholarships, creating an imbalance in the eyes of some.
"If you are making effort and supposedly doing the right thing, why do they keep coming after guys like us?" said Western Michigan football coach Bill Cubit, whose programs lost scholarships largely because of players leaving the program when he took over four years ago. "I find it hard to believe that there's not a whole lot of other schools besides Arizona. When you see the graduation rates of some of these other guys, how are they doing it?"
This year, the Ohio State men's basketball team represents one high-profile program that is expected to avoid punishment despite a poor APR score. The Buckeyes are expected to have a score below the 925 cutoff and have a player (Greg Oden) who left school midway through the spring semester to prepare for the NBA draft, in which he was the No. 1 pick.
But John Bruno, the school's faculty athletic representative, said the program expects to avoid penalty because the NCAA approved its academic improvement plan, which includes increasing the number of tutors and assigning an academic support person to travel with the men's basketball team.
David Ridpath, the executive director of reform-minded Drake Group, said it would "look pretty bad" from a public relations standpoint if no high-profile programs lose scholarships, but if that occurs, "I wouldn't necessarily think anything else other than the big programs have the resources to make sure they meet the score, quite frankly, by any means they can. There are certain things that can be done -- if you have the academic improvement plan -- to tweak the process. I'm not saying that is necessarily unfair, but it does lend the question of how credible is this."
Speaking to the disparity in academic resources, Cubit said if Western Michigan had "15 academic people running around, chasing kids to class, I would be far more successful than if I have two people on campus dealing with about 400 student-athletes. We're not going to hire the same amount of people as Texas or Tennessee."
Sanctions can also have significant ramifications at mid-level basketball programs. Consider Wyoming Coach Heath Schroyer, who in the spring of last year took over a Cowboys program that, he said, had the lowest APR of any men's or women's team in the Mountain West Conference. He said APR has become one of the top issues a coach should consider when taking over a program because his program has been punished because of the actions of players he never met.
"It is a balancing act," said Schroyer, who played high school basketball at DeMatha. "The years of giving everyone to your academic adviser and trying to keep them eligible is gone. Coaches are doing a lot of due diligence because the APR affects you on the basketball floor."
Brand has said the APR is not intended to punish programs as much as it is designed to change a culture. But Ridpath and others maintain concerns about programs funneling athletes to easier majors and athletic departments managing APR scores rather than offering athletes the best available education.
"It will be hard for me to look at that [announcement] and say they [schools] are really on the right track," Ridpath said. "There are too many loopholes. The model itself has not changed. We have not changed what the goal is: They have to win games. Period. Typically, savvy people find ways to get around all of these things."