The APR may be flawed, but it works

June, 11, 2013
6/11/13
6:20
PM ET
With the possible exception of the NCAA itself (emphasis on "possible") no one thinks the Academic Progress Rate is perfect. There is a simple reason for this: It isn't.

The metric the NCAA uses to quantify academic performance among Division I teams is riddled with flaws. It is easily gamed by schools that have the resources to do so, and harshly punitive for those who do not. It rankles coaches, who think they're punished for circumstances outside their control. It is somehow both statistically inscrutable (who uses a 1,000-point scale, anyway?) and statistically crude. It's retroactive punishments hurt players who might have had nothing to do with a team's past academic struggles.

One could go on and on about these flaws, and not unfairly so. But guess what? Warts and all, the APR works.

To find evidence, one need look no further than Storrs, Conn. UConn -- one of the premier brands of the past two decades just two seasons removed from a national title -- missed last season's NCAA tournament not thanks to bad play on the court, but to a four-year APR score of 902 earned during the final years of former coach Jim Calhoun's tenure. The Huskies were good enough to go dancing in 2012-13, but they weren't allowed to do so. An impressively determined performance was nonetheless reduced to little more than a series of exhibition games.

This week, when the new APR scores were released, Connecticut announced it had righted the ship, becoming eligible for postseason play once more.

How did it do this, exactly? By taking the APR seriously. From the Associated Press:
Over the past several years, the program put into place changes in an effort to boost the scores. Those include mandated sanctions for any player who misses three or more classes during the academic year and daily checks of course work for student-athletes who have a grade-point average of 2.3 or lower. Players also are required to attend at least nine hours of summer school each year and adhere to a "graduation plan" created to ensure each player is on a path to graduate, even if they leave school early for the NBA or other opportunities.

"The players really took pride in saying, 'This is not us. We are student-athletes in the true sense of the word'," said [Athletic Director Warde] Manuel. "They have showed that a one-year ban in the past is not a real indicator of how much they really focus on their academics as well as their athletics. That's the thing that made us, internally, happiest."

UConn was kept out of the NCAA tournament. Let's say that again: UConn was kept out of the NCAA tournament. This wasn't the archetypal scenario of the NCAA punishing some small school to prove a point. This was a program that has won three national titles since 1999 -- one that has its apparel anywhere Nike sells basketball anything -- being told its grades weren't good enough for it to compete for a national title. There was no amnesty offered, no "OK, just don't do it again," appeal. The NCAA set a standard. The Huskies didn't live up. Punishment followed. Then Connecticut took steps to make sure it didn't happen again.

In other words, in UConn's case, the APR had the desired effect. It forced UConn to change, and to be public about those changes, just as it has forced every other program around the country to acknowledge the possibility of the kind of punishment -- a postseason ban -- that used to happen only when a program repeatedly committed the most brazen of major recruiting violations. In this case, at least, the APR has been a success.

Does it have flaws, loopholes, and an occasional lack of nuance? It's an NCAA rule! Of course it does! Does it force colleges to really, truly educate a player, and not merely pass him through whatever department gives the most A's? Not necessarily. Is it universally fair? No. Is it immune to trickery? No. Does it punish players unfairly, whether they're good students or not? Yes. These are all bugs some future edition of the APR, like any good new piece of software, should smooth out. In the meantime, the calculus is simple: Keep your players in good academic standing or pay the price.

Think of the current APR as a hammer. In a few years, maybe that hammer will be multi-pronged and electronically stabilized; maybe it will have a digital readout and an accelerometer that automatically tells your iPhone how many calories you burn every time you hang a picture on the wall. (I don't really know that much about hammers, but if this idea hasn't been taken already, by all means, enjoy). Maybe a new version will wipe out many of the APR's oft-cited flaws. Let's hope so.

For now, it's just a crude old wooden-handled hammer. There is much that could be theoretically improved about this tool, but that doesn't change the fact that it does a job. When the hammer hits, it hurts. And that's the most important feature of all.

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