- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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University presidents and athletic administrators promised swift and serious action after their two-day NCAA retreat.
On Thursday, they delivered their first hammer.
Following up on the retreat's mandate to toughen academic standards, the NCAA Board of Directors voted to ban Division I teams with a four-year academic progress rate (APR) below 930 from participating in the postseason, including all NCAA tournaments and football bowl games.
It's a significant change from the APR structure now in place. Currently, teams with a four-year APR of 925 or below face penalties like loss of scholarships. Only if a team falls below a 900 and is therefore considered a chronic under-performer will it face "historical penalties" including postseason bans.
Now the NCAA will do away with the 900 cutoff, forcing all teams to raise their academic standards or sit on the sidelines in the postseason. Under the new standards, 12 teams would not have qualified for this year's NCAA tournament, including Ohio State and Syracuse.
"A 930 equates to a 50 percent graduation rate and that is the stake in the ground that the presidents wish to put in as an overall goal for every team in Division I," said Dr. Walt Harrison, president of the University of Hartford who serves as the chair of the Division I committee on academic performance. "It's a clear marker. We believe a 50 percent graduation rate is a reasonable goal for all teams."
The final kinks still need to be worked out, but NCAA president Mark Emmert said he expects a formalized plan to be in place by October. Between now and then Harrison and his committee will look at the particulars, including a timetable for implementing the new structure. Because it is a considerable leap, Harrison said there likely will be a three- to five-year phase-in period, allowing schools to "ratchet up" their academics.
Also under discussion is just when the new numbers would be released. Currently, the NCAA releases its annual APR report in May -- a month after the NCAA tournament ends.
Connecticut, with an APR of 930 in May 2010, was eligible to compete and win a national championship. But as of May 2011, the Huskies' APR dropped to 893. If the new mandate was in place, UConn would not be able to defend its title.
But Harrison said that the different academic calendars -- some schools use quarters while others go by semesters -- would make it difficult to have more than one report released.
"As things currently stand, (the spring scores) would determine the next year's postseason eligibility," Harrison said.
One thing that does seem likely to change is the appeal process.
As in there won't be one.
Currently, teams that fall below a 900 can receive a waiver rather than postseason ban in extenuating circumstances -- if, for example, the school has shown marked improvement or the president has shown active involvement in improving his struggling team's academic performance.
"I don't think there will be too much leverage there," Harrison said. "If there is any appeal, I think it will be pretty tightly defined and there might not be any."
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had previously called for the NCAA to ban basketball teams with graduation rates below 40 percent from competing in the NCAA tournament. He issued a statement approving of the changes.
"I applaud the NCAA's decision and encourage them to proceed with due speed," Duncan said. "When we joined this conversation two years ago, many experts were skeptical that the NCAA would ever move to deal with the the problem of low graduation rates among a small minority of tournament teams. But they were wrong. College presidents have acted courageously and are leading the way."
NCAA statistics show athletes graduate at a higher rate that non-athletes and academic performance has steadily improved among all sports The most recent numbers, released in May, showed the overall average score for athletes jumped three points to 970. Two of the lower scoring sports -- baseball (959) and men's basketball (945) -- had a five-point jump over the previous year. Another low-scoring sport, football (946), had a two-point jump.
The rule change will likely go down like a dose of castor oil in college hoops circles. Since it was implemented, the APR long has been a sticking point among college basketball coaches who argue it punishes teams unfairly when players leave early for the NBA.
Two years ago, Syracuse lost two scholarships after Eric Devendorf, Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris opted to leave for the NBA without completing their spring coursework.
"It's flawed," Jim Boeheim said at the time about the APR system. "There is absolutely nothing a coach can do if a kid wants to leave and train for the NBA. If he was leaving and walking the streets, I'd understand. When those kids left, they were eligible. They opted not to finish."
But academic administrators and NCAA officials don't want to hear it. They counter that the APR allows for a student to leave early provided he or she leaves in good academic standing.
And more, they believe that the APR goes to the core of what the NCAA is about.
"This is about making sure student-athletes are students," Emmert said. "There is an expectation that they behave accordingly."
The list of penalized teams has skewed disproportionately toward historically black colleges and universities.
This year, the NCAA graded 340 schools. Twenty-four, or about 7 percent, were HBCUs. Yet of the 58 harshest penalties handed out, half went to teams in the two conferences, the Southwestern Athletic and the Mid-Eastern Athletic, comprised entirely of HBCUs. Four teams in those leagues were banned from NCAA tourneys because of their poor academic performance, and football teams at Southern and Jackson State were even banned from playing in the SWAC title game.
If the new rules were in place last year, Alcorn State would have been the only school in the SWAC eligible for the postseason.
Now, everybody is expected to hit an even higher mark to remain eligible for postseason tourneys.
"From a SWAC standpoint, we have to look at what we're doing and definitely get our house in order. But I think our chancellors are working hard to get that done," commissioner Duer Sharp said. "The NCAA realizes not everyone has the same resources and they've been receptive to our challenges."
Some coaches think it's the right move, though.
"I think it's everybody's responsibility to go to school and get an education," Alabama football coach Nick Saban said. "That's part of our program here. I don't really see it being a big issue that players are held accountable relative to what their responsibility is to get an education."
In other action Thursday, the board:
• Agreed to do away with the single-year APR scores and will only use the four-year rolling average to determine postseason eligibility.
• Agreed to continue providing funding for low-resource schools to help the academic performance of athletes and look at new ways to help those schools.
• Decided to take another look at improving the standards for incoming freshmen and junior college transfers in October.
• Agreed to consider including family members among the definition of third-party influences, a definition that also includes agents.
• Decided not to permit conference or school television networks to broadcast any high school programming, a definition Emmert said will extend beyond athletic contests.
Information from ESPN's Tom Farrey and The Associated Press was used in this report.
NCAA leaders are finally backing up their words with actions.