College presidents will prove they're serious about reform the day they give head coaches bonuses for grade point averages. Instead, the mandate to coaches from administrations is: Win. When is the last time we heard of a coach who got fired for a team's poor academic performance? But plenty get fired every year for not making the NCAA tournament or a bowl game. This, not professionalism, is the real root of corruption in athletics.
Every few years an NCAA committee of pipe suckers devises a new rule that scapegoats coaches and penalizes athletes for their pro aspirations, while never addressing the fact that presidents are as complicit in the failures of college athletics as anyone. NCAA President Myles Brand has trumpeted the latest attempt, a Rubik's Cube of a rule called Academic Progress Rate, as a sweeping new reform package that will cause a "sea change" in college athletics. But it doesn't take trumpets and sea changes to see that kids go to class; it just takes the right intentions. At North Carolina, for instance, the coaches have graduation incentive clauses written into their contracts. Roy Williams receives the same bonus for making the NCAA tournament -- one-twelfth of his salary -- that he does if his team's grad rate is equal to or exceeds that of the student body.
The so-called reformers all wring their hands publicly about trying to legislate academic morality, when the fact is, if they would emphasize decent academic standards on their individual campuses, they wouldn't need a grandstand play like the APR.
The most insidious thing about the APR is an underpinning that presumes elite athletes have no interest in education, and neither do their coaches. One oft-stated reason for the APR is to force coaches to recruit "student athletes" as opposed to NBA- or NFL-bound aspirants -- as if the two are mutually exclusive.
In effect, the APR penalizes athletic ambition. The APR works on a points scale, with 1,000 the highest score. If a school repeatedly falls below 925, because, for instance, it produces too many great basketball or football players who turn pro early, it can be kicked out of the NCAA tournament or a bowl game, no matter what the academic standing of the players. If that sounds reasonable to you, which it shouldn't, consider the case of North Carolina, the defending NCAA basketball champion, which just lost four players who chose early entry to the NBA draft. Under the APR, the school would be penalized a point for each player, regardless of how good his grades were.
What's going to happen the first time Duke misses the numbers three years out of 10 and isn't eligible for the NCAA tournament?
That is why I say the so-called reformers who wrote the rule don't really believe in college athletics. They use them -- but they don't believe in them. If they believed in them as good and worthy enterprises, then they wouldn't have written a rule that infers athletes degrade academic standards and that treats coaches as enemies of education.
Apparently, they really believe one group of people is meant to study and another group is meant to compete, and the two shouldn't get in each other's way.
Next week, the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance will meet to review the rule, which is scheduled to take effect in December. The committee is already considering adjustments, because it clearly did not think through some of the consequences of the rule. Before Myles Brand pats himself on his own back for this "sea change," maybe he should ask himself why the NCAA is having to adjust the policy before enforcing it once. The answer is, this is what happens when you write sweeping new policies for publicity value, without consulting the people who actually have to apply and enforce them -- namely, coaches.
They didn't consult with coaches for one of two reasons: (A) they don't care about real effective reform, only about appearances, or (B) they are snobs who don't think coaches have anything to contribute to the discussion.
I know my share of college coaches, and I've met my share of presidents. And the vast majority of coaches I've met care a lot more about the well-being of their players than Myles Brand. In fact, I'd say there isn't an administrator at any school who cares more about the players than the head coach.
Yes, coaches are certainly overpaid and overvalued, and yes, a few of them are irredeemable cheats. But most of them view themselves as educators. They have less job security and more pressure than most professors, and no other figure on campus is charged with the same responsibilities. If a Kappa Alpha gets drunk and has a bar fight, nobody holds his history professor accountable. And yet, if one of the Tar Heels were to fail a class, we look straight at Roy Williams.
Williams has just lost four of his best players to the NBA -- does this mean they don't care about education, and shouldn't have been recruited in the first place? Apparently, this is exactly the view of the NCAA and its Committee on Academic Progress, that monument to coherent educational philosophy.
By that standard, Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, Jerry Stackhouse, J.R. Reid, and Antawn Jamison shouldn't have been recruited at North Carolina, either. All of them left without degrees. And all of them came back and graduated. Carter was excoriated by some for leaving his NBA team to make the graduation ceremony. Stackhouse was roundly criticized for bolting Carolina so early, entering the draft as a sophomore. Took him ages to get the degree, studying over summers.
But apparently we don't need people like that using college as a stepping-stone to the pros.
Oh yeah. One more thing. Remember that big kid who left LSU in 1992 without a degree? Shaquille O'Neal?
He just got his masters.