Commentary

College sports' bait and switch

Originally Published: August 9, 2012
By Gerald S. Gurney and Richard M. Southall | Special to ESPN.com

Last month, the NCAA announced its latest team Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, highlighting the institutions whose four-year averages fell below the 900 threshold score. Among the offending teams was notably the University of Connecticut, which will be ineligible for the 2013 NCAA Division I men's basketball championship and must limit its practice time each week by replacing four hours with academic activities.

However, less publicized was that the remaining penalized basketball teams are all low-budgeted, limited-resource institutions or historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs): Arkansas-Pine Bluff, UC Riverside, Cal State Bakersfield, Jacksonville State, Mississippi Valley State, University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Toledo and Towson. In addition, football teams from Hampton, North Carolina A&T and Texas Southern are banned from competing in postseason competition.

To some observers the lack of high-profile Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams among those penalized has raised fundamental questions about the APR's efficacy and fairness. Conversely, some APR supporters have suggested APR success simply indicates some teams have better students than others. These dichotomous perspectives were reflected at last January's NCAA Scholarly Colloquium, where Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and a major architect of the APR, was questioned about the ease with which institutions with financial resources can manipulate APR scores through permissible NCAA adjustments and other strategies. In light of these issues, Harrison was asked if he regarded penalties to underfunded and historically black colleges or universities fair and appropriate. Harrison candidly replied these issues have haunted him for years and assured the audience the NCAA shared his concerns.

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Lance King/Getty ImagesNavigating the educational landscape is a bureaucratic challenge for many NCAA institutions.

While the NCAA may express concern, it has yet to publicly address common methods schools that have the financial wherewithal use to raise their team APR scores. The following are a few effective strategies institutions with financial means employ to bolster their APR scores and avoid penalties.

The liberal use of summer session

Athletes failing to meet grade point average requirements are enrolled in summer session. If these athletes are non-contributors, let them know their grant-in-aid will not be renewed and work with them to transfer out in "good academic standing." The athlete has an incentive to leave while he is eligible, so he can receive financial aid at his new institution. Transfers who leave while eligible are not penalized with the loss of a retention point, thus having no negative impact on the institution's APR score. Another institutional bonus is the individual is removed from the NCAA's Graduation Success Rate (GSR) cohort. If the athlete is enrolled in enough easy classes and can earn a 2.6 grade point average, no APR penalty is attached. However, enrollment in summer session is expensive; most low-budget athletic programs simply do not have the financial resources this gambit requires.

The liberal use of NCAA waivers

Athletes who fail to meet initial eligibility standards and can demonstrate a learning disability will often be exempted from meeting standard initial eligibility requirements through an initial eligibility waiver. In addition, the NCAA may also waive the requirement to maintain a full-time academic load of 12 credit hours. A successfully written progress-toward-degree waiver can often allow athletes with certified learning disabilities who fail to meet NCAA standards by passing enough degree applicable credit hours to be granted continuing eligibility.

Navigating this educational landscape is a bureaucratic challenge for many NCAA institutions. However, the disparity between compliance staffing at FBS schools and "limited-resource" and HBCU institutions is enormous. For example, the University of Oklahoma staff consists of 11 professionals, including several lawyers. The University of Southern California is similarly staffed with 11 compliance officers. The University of Alabama maintains a staff of eight. The University of Texas' Risk Management and Compliance Services staff has seven full-time professionals. Conversely, limited-resource universities must make due with almost nonexistent staffs. For example: Arkansas-Pine Bluff has a total of two compliance staff, Hampton University has a single compliance staff "coordinator" and a total of three full-time academic support staff and Mississippi Valley State University has only one compliance officer.

As a result of their personnel largess, "un-limited-resource" institutions have staff whose primary duties involve writing admissions waivers and exceptions, as well as monitoring athletes' satisfactory progress toward degree. At one Big 12 institution, a typical year's waiver writing assignments for a compliance attorney included one initial eligibility waiver and up to seven reduced-hour or other progress-toward-degree waivers and exceptions. Having someone specifically assigned to these tasks is necessary in order to make certain the institution does not suffer embarrassing penalties or fail to compete in postseason competition. Overworked and understaffed, HBCU athletic departments simply lack the human resources to address these issues. Being overwhelmed by the minutia of NCAA eligibility paperwork, they find it impossible to even address waivers.

Other exceptions to meeting progress toward degree

There are two exceptions for satisfactory progress primarily used to manipulate APR scores, the medical exception and the missed term exception. Athletes or members of their families who become ill with incapacitating injuries or illnesses may also escape APR eligibility penalties through being granted an exception. Athletes who experience depression or suffer other mental illness may avoid progress-toward-degree consequences by withdrawing from classes or dropping down to a part-time academic load. Alcoholism, depression or substance abuse, for example, may be considered an incapacitating illness.

The missed term exception permits an athlete to miss one or more semesters one time during their career if they leave eligible. The missed term exception may be used even if the athlete's absence is due to a suspension for academic dishonesty if they were eligible prior to the absence.

Such exceptions can only be granted after a department staff member has expended substantial time and effort drafting and submitting the necessary paperwork to the NCAA or conference offices. In addition, staff members must ensure all necessary requirements are completed for the waiver or exception; this often requires substantial time and effort. Low-resource athletic departments simply do not have the staff to engage in such efforts.

Former player support

An oft-used method of manipulating APR scores is recruiting former team non-graduates to return to the university and earn a degree. For example, if a basketball team needs to dramatically raise its APR score, providing financial support for a former player to come back to school can save the team from serious penalties and embarrassment. To finance such a degree completion program for former players is expensive and often not a viable option for underfunded institutions.

Creative advising

Creative academic advisers are experts at successfully navigating the NCAA's eligibility and retention game. Athletic academic support professionals can enroll highly marginal and resistant athletes in courses with little or no academic rigor to maintain strong team APR scores. If an athlete is doing poorly in a class, it can be dropped or withdrawn and replaced by a more lenient but costly course offered later in the semester. Research also indicates another APR-boosting tactic is disproportionately placing at-risk athletes in campus majors with less academic rigor. This practice is linked to an increasing phenomenon commonly referred to as major "clustering." Finding athlete friendly professors known as "jock docs" is also a common ploy, as the recent academic scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill glaringly illustrates.

Learning specialists and academic support personnel

Maintaining the eligibility and retention of highly talented athletes has become so important that most institutions employ a fleet of learning specialists, academic advisers, tutors and "class-checkers." The financial and marketing stakes are simply too high. To lose a prize athlete to an eligibility issue is front-page news. To be penalized by the NCAA and have a team banned from a bowl game or tournament is considered the ultimate failure in athletic-academic circles. To avoid the embarrassment, big-time college athletic programs spend millions to ensure their most talented players remain eligible and their teams surpass NCAA academic minimum scores. With the influx of television revenues from the new Division I football playoffs, more dollars will be expended to ensure that no BCS team goes punished.

The bait and switch

The new and improved version of the APR penalties will not appreciably change the current academic landscape of college athletics. In response to pressure from the Knight Commission and other critics, the NCAA simply raised the penalty threshold to a 930 and announced this new figure actually more closely approximates a 50 percent "graduation rate."

However, the graduation rate referenced reflects a classic "bait and switch." The NCAA's newly adopted Graduation Success Rate (GSR) includes a number of adjustments for athletes who leave a university in "good academic standing" and results in an overall GSR rate (2010-11 -- 82 percent) that is (on average) 17-20 percentage points higher than the Federal Graduation Rate (FGR) (2010-11 -- 65 percent). As a result, since the introduction of the GSR, NCAA athletes' reported graduation success has dramatically increased. What has been lost amid the NCAA's public relations campaign is the continued existence of large (30-40 percent) negative graduation gaps between NCAA Division I football and men's basketball players and the general student population. In some cases teams report graduation rates of zero. Simply put, the athletes on whose skill the entire commercial enterprise depends, college football and men's basketball players, are dramatically less likely than other students to obtain a degree. This is to say nothing about the quality of the education to which they have access.

By consistently simply asserting the GSR "more accurately assesses the academic success" of college athletes and steadfastly referring to GSR rates, NCAA members have convinced the media to almost exclusively use the new, more-favorable metric. Intentionally or not, the NCAA's APR and GSR metrics confuse the media, fans and the general public. Using the GSR and APR to tout graduation success and increased academic standards is undoubtedly savvy marketing and public relations, but these metrics are fundamentally nothing more than measures of how successful athletic departments are at keeping athletes eligible, and have increasingly fostered acts of academic dishonesty and devalued higher education in a frantic search for eligibility and retention points.

In a now established, high-minded annual ritual the NCAA announces the academic pariahs who have failed to live up to the association's commitment to education. What is readily apparent when this roll call is announced is that in today's big-time free-market college sports world, the NCAA -- in the name of increased academic standards -- sacrifices schools like Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Hampton and Jacksonville State in order to protect its core brands: March Madness and the next iteration of the Bowl Championship Series.

Gerald S. Gurney is assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma, a past president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics and the former senior associate athletic director for academics at OU. Richard M. Southall is an associate professor of sport administration and coordinator of the graduate sport administration program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.