- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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In late August, my mother often gathered her children and loaded the family sedan. Once we had reached the local big-box retailer, she would whip out a massive list of school supplies.
Pencils, pens, paper, notebooks, folders. One by one, we tossed them into the shopping cart.
They weren't for us. My mother, an elementary school teacher in the Milwaukee public school system for more than 30 years, bought the items for the children in her class who couldn't afford them. It was a necessary gesture of good will. Her students -- many of whom lagged behind their wealthier academic peers -- depended on those resources, which their parents and inner-city school could not supply.
It's a common dilemma throughout the country. Three years ago, the New York Times reported that the average graduation rate in the 50 largest cities in the country was 53 percent, while the graduation rate in the suburbs of the same cities was 71 percent. The fragmented secondary education system tends to favor the affluent.
The best and the brightest have the upper hand in the American collegiate system, too. But average college students also have access to tools and resources that can help them earn degrees if they're willing to work hard. And the money tied to academic support in college sports often grants athletes another academic boost over the rest of the student body.
Within college athletics, the academic benchmarks established by the NCAA and the arms race that demands elite, eligible athletes have fueled the funding of academic extras on campuses across the country.
Foreign language centers, computer labs, tutors who travel with teams to games -- they're all exclusively accessible for many college athletes who need them. At major-conference schools, a struggling student raises his hand for help and educational specialists bombard him.
But that doesn't happen at Donald Sims' school. Mississippi Valley State's athletic director relies on an assembly of staffers and community members to help his university meet the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate, a barometer of a program's ability to retain athletes, keep them eligible and help them earn degrees.
MVSU's men's basketball program, which competed in the NCAA tournament in March, has been banned from postseason play in 2013 for failing to meet the NCAA's APR standard, a four-year average of 900. Four other programs from the pool of Historically Black Colleges and Universities have also incurred postseason bans for the 2012-13 campaign. The bulk of remaining bans were tied to schools classified as mid-major or Football Bowl Subdivision programs. Connecticut was the only program from a major conference that incurred penalties.
The financial challenges endured by some Division I programs that have struggled to meet the APR standards shouldn't create assumptions about their ability to comply, said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs.
"We do have many limited-resource institutions who are absolutely having no problem meeting the academic requirement," Lennon said. "We have some resource institutions at the highest levels that have failed to meet some of these requirements."
But the APR has become a nightstick -- not a measuring rod -- that whacks some of the nation's poorer programs.
Sims refuses to complain or request lower guidelines, even though the chasm between his university's level of academic support resources and those enjoyed by his BCS peers is stark. He doesn't have any full-time staffers who focus on academics in the athletics department.
Nearby, Mississippi State lists 10 academic facilitators on its website. In her recent story on the APR, ESPN.com's Robbi Pickeral reported that NC State has 13 full-timers, 65 to 70 tutors and a handful of interns and monitors. The University of Texas spent $2.6 million on academic support for its athletes in the last fiscal year.
At Mississippi Valley State? There, the women's soccer coach and two track and field assistants double as academic support staffers who try to help MVSU's athletes stay afloat academically. Sims asks athletes with top grades to tutor their teammates when necessary, and he has requested retired educators to volunteer their time.
"We are working miracles here in the Delta," Sims said.
Pushing hundreds of athletes through the rigors of classwork, practice and competition with 28 full-time staff members monitoring 18 squads constitutes college athletics' version of turning water into wine, but Sims and his small-college colleagues do it every season.
"We don't have anyone full time [in academic support] that's 100 percent devoted to athletics," said Earl Hilton, athletic director at North Carolina A&T, where the football program has been banned from this year's postseason due to a low APR.
Despite billions of dollars in revenue floating throughout the collegiate landscape -- enough money to spur legitimate conversations about compensating players -- some schools that the NCAA penalized for their APR scores lack the financial capability to acquire resources that would help them reach the academic demands.
"I'm a realist. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer," Sims said. "No one is looking to help the poor. You've got to help yourself."
The NCAA recognizes the disadvantages that schools with limited resources must overcome.
Last week, the organization's board of directors, in consultation with advisers from various HBCUs, approved the $4.8 million Limited-Resource Institutions Grant Program Pilot, a three-year fund for low-resource schools. Universities can use that money -- a maximum of $300,000 per year per university -- to fulfill their academic needs.
The NCAA had previously established the Supplemental Support Fund, which provides grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 for specific institutions with resource challenges.
For Sims, the grant is not insignificant. He said he'll devote the money, if approved, to the academic support staffing that his department craves.
"We're looking forward to getting a portion of that money that the NCAA has set aside for low-resource institutions," Sims said. "That will help us out tremendously here at Mississippi Valley. We owe academic success to all our athletes. I'm sure we could see some results within that period of time."
The NCAA has also offered a reprieve for low-resource schools. Under new standards, all programs must achieve a four-year average APR of 930 -- which projects to a 50 percent graduation rate, per the NCAA -- by 2016-17. But the NCAA has approved a gradual progression for schools with limited resources to achieve that standard.
Kudos to the NCAA for its effort to close the gap, but it's not enough.
Gerald Gurney worked as an athletic administrator at various universities for more than 30 years. In his most recent stint, he led academic services for Oklahoma athletics from 1993 to 2011. There, he had multiple lawyers who focused only on athletics. He had multiple compliance staffers who focused only on athletics. He had multiple learning specialists who focused only on athletics. He, like rival Texas, had a $2.6 million budget for academic compliance. (Sims' entire athletics budget is $4.2 million.)
The $300,000 grants that the NCAA approved for low-resource schools -- reserved for programs in the bottom 10 percent in resources -- will barely make a dent in the long run, Gurney said.
"In my judgment, it's a mere pittance of what's necessary to change the culture of intercollegiate athletics," he said.
Marginal students put every program at risk of academic penalties, but the multimillion-dollar parachute that keeps those students eligible at BCS institutions is unavailable at many schools.
That's why Gurney calls the APR a "game." Wealthier schools can use various maneuvers to avoid NCAA chastening. They can apply for special waivers that allow struggling students to take a lighter load. They can put those kids through summer school so they can catch up in the classroom. The NCAA even grants schools an additional APR point when former athletes return to school and earn their degrees.
Those APR enhancements demand sufficient resources that many programs can't spare.
"Our students are not different than any underfunded institution," Gurney said. "They don't have enough compliance officers. They don't have enough academic folks."
Gurney has urged the NCAA to scrap the APR and co-wrote a commentary for ESPN.com explaining his position.
It's hard to disagree.
The NCAA should certainly suspend the APR for schools that lack basic academic resources. How can the NCAA punish a program that can't even afford one full-time staffer committed to academics?
It should also remove the pilot tag from its new grant program and fund a permanent financial stream to distressed schools. Temporary funds won't help.
Earlier this week, I asked Walt Harrison, the president of the University of Hartford and chairman of the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance, if the nation's presidents had ever talked about donating revenue to help bridge the academic gap in college sports. He said most school presidents are so caught up in their own resource challenges -- HBCUs alone don't have that problem -- that they rarely discuss the ways that they could help their peers.
"Perhaps we should do that," Harrison said.
Perhaps so. Someone should.
The NCAA will continue to raise the APR standard. There is no sense in maintaining a specific target if everyone meets it. The entire concept of enforcement demands violators.
As long as the APR minimum rises, limited-resource schools that lack the network of individuals to maximize the scholastic potential of their athletes will encounter more obstacles. The academic infrastructure needs a complete overhaul, significant policy changes and permanent funding so that no Division I school has to rely on a soccer coach to tutor athletes.
These low-resource programs have not asked for pity. Sims and Hilton both said they expect their respective universities to comply with the APR standard.
But there's just too much BCS money, too much March Madness money, too much TV revenue for the divide to remain.
They're not asking for multimillion-dollar academic facilities -- although their wealthier peers have them.
They're not asking for a dozen academic compliance officers -- although their wealthier peers have them.
They just want a reasonable level of academic support that could minimize the challenges they have encountered in their pursuit of the APR's mark. That's something the NCAA and its board of directors should continue to analyze, evaluate and correct -- see: more financial support and staffing -- in the coming years.