NCAA academic penalties flunk sniff test

The big sports money's in the big conferences and the big classroom underachievers aren't?

Published May 8, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

The NCAA this week handed out penalties to more than 200 sports teams that have fallen short of the required standard on the association's Academic Progress Report. The punishments include loss of scholarships and practice time, and chronic underachievers face postseason bans beginning next year.

The APR program tracks each team's performance at keeping athletes in school and academically eligible as well as its graduation rate. The idea is that if you're going to field a team of jocks who never go near a classroom, you're going to get dinged by the APR, whose penalties are ultimately as serious as those for NCAA rules violations.

And that's serious. NCAA rules violations usually involve athletes getting a little piece of the profits, which is the highest crime in the very strange land of big-time college sports.

The offenders list is an odd one. The problem the NCAA is trying to attack is the professionalization of college athletics, the exaggerated emphasis on sports at the expense of academics.

So, given everything you know about how the world works, not to mention how college sports work, wouldn't you think that powerhouses in the big revenue-producing sports would be heavily represented among those who are cutting corners in the classroom?

The more time you spend studying, the less you have for practicing or working out. The more road trips and tournaments and nationally televised midweek games you have, the less time you have to go to class. The more a school requires its athletes to be good students, the more good athletes it loses out on.

That's not a knock on athletics, by the way. It's just a product of the fact that the subset of students and athletes who are good at those two different things is pretty small. It would work the other way too. A school that required its students to be good athletes would miss out on a lot of elite brains.

The point is, shortchanging academics is an obvious, tried-and-true method for increasing a school's chances for success on the field of play.

Of the 37 football teams sanctioned this week, two of them play in BCS, which is to say major, conferences. Those two are Kansas and Washington State, not exactly traditional powers, though Kansas is in an up period.

The big sports money is in the big conferences. That means the big incentive to cut academic corners is in the big conferences.

And it's just Kansas and Hawaii. In basketball, which the NCAA says has the biggest academic problems, the only teams in the six major conferences that were sanctioned were Seton Hall, Purdue, Colorado, Kansas State, USC, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Doesn't pass the sniff test, does it? It's always wise, and especially so when the NCAA is involved, to follow the money. The bigger athletic programs have more money to spend on academic support services -- and, possibly, more characters hanging around who might want to earn, at least, a little reflected glory by writing the odd paper or take-home final.

NCAA president Myles Brand acknowledged this week that money can be a factor, but said the most important question isn't how much money a school has, but how it spends that money.

"It makes more sense to put the resources in the development of academic enhancement than it does into new suites," he said.

Right. That must be the problem at places like Gardner-Webb and Central Connecticut State. Too many new luxury suites. The University of Toledo must have built a deluxe dorm for its cross-country team. Maybe Alabama State should have invested in some tutors instead of that four-star dining room for the women's volleyball squad.

The APR has resulted in an uptick in graduation rates among athletes. The system is a big stick the NCAA is waving around to make member schools graduate a few more players, and generally speaking when you wave a big stick around, people do what you ask them to do. But the stick -- like the organization that waves it -- is not terribly concerned with how the desired result is achieved.

Schools have always pushed their athletes into taking easy classes and avoiding challenging majors. The APR creates more incentive to push more of them that way. More kids graduating doesn't necessarily mean more kids are getting more education. But that's OK, the NCAA isn't about education. It's about profits from a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry with a mostly unpaid labor force.

Low graduation rates were generating complaints about the product. That's bad for business. Getting graduation rates up pipes down those complaints and makes people feel better about the product. That's good for business.

There are people in the NCAA, lots of them, and certainly including Myles Brand, who really believe in the educational mission, that student-athletes are students first and athletes second and all that. And not one of their ideas about how to get graduation rates up would fog a mirror if getting graduation rates up, by hook or by crook, weren't good for business.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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