|Thursday, October 31
Updated: November 3, 9:57 PM ET
It's all academic now
By Tom Farrey
There's a new reality show in college sports, one that promises to reveal the integrity of college presidents who want to be known as high-minded academics, even reformers, but must operate more like Fortune 500 CEOs. The game is called, How low can you go?
That's right: 400, which is, not so coincidentally, the lowest score possible.
Not a single answer correct on the test.
Sign your name, and fall asleep at the desk. When you wake up, there will be a full-ride scholarship and the sounds of some coach diagramming a play against Indiana awaiting you.
Under the new rules that would go into effect in August, even the poorest-testing athlete could suit up as a true freshman. It's all part of a NCAA move to reduce the importance of standardized tests in determining who gets to play college ball.
"We think we have met all the concerns of those who have criticized us for our use of the test," said Percy Bates, faculty athletic representative at Michigan and chairman of the NCAA Management Council, the group that recommended approval last week.
The move takes college presidents off the hook with advocates for black athletes, who, armed with research data, argue that the current SAT minimum of 820 unfairly penalizes disadvantaged students who come from inner-city school systems that fail to properly prepare them for college admittance. And it puts those presidents squarely on the hook for the difficult admissions decisions that are going to be made in the coming years on individual campuses.
No longer can they point to NCAA standards when denying a prospect the caliber of Kevin Garnett admission to their school. They've lost their cover. Now, if a coach really wants some stud whose score is 600 points below the average incoming freshman's at that school, it's the president whom the alums will blame should the application be rejected.
You can guess how some presidents are going to respond when put in that trap.
"There's already a heck of a lot of pressure for schools to accept the same players other schools are taking," said Terry Holland, former basketball coach and now an assistant to the president at the University of Virginia. "Even the best schools will feel a great deal of pressure to take the kid with the 600 SAT."
For the record, just 4 percent of all test takers nationally score less than 700, according to the College Board, the SAT folks. The national mean is 1020.
"It's going to be a moral issue on campus: Does this kid have any chance to graduate?" said Phil Moses, lead academic advisor in the North Carolina State athletic department. "If the answer is no, you're not doing the kid a favor. Failing in school isn't going to make him feel good about himself."
Bates isn't worried. He's a firm believer in the predictive value of high school grades, pointing to the NCAA's claim that athletes with a 700 SAT and 3.0 GPA (low test scores/ decent grades) are slightly more likely to graduate than those with a 820 SAT but only 2.5 GPA (higher scores/lower grades). The notion is that if a student can get good marks in high school, there's no reason he can't do the same in college.
The new NCAA format merely extends the current sliding scale that weighs SAT score against high-school GPA in determining eligibility, to further reward players with good grades. If an athlete Christmas-trees his SAT and gets only a 500, for instance, he better have wowed his teachers in the classroom -- as he'll need a 3.3 GPA in his core academic classes to play for any college.
Of course, teachers can be wowed for reasons other than academic performance. Like compassion. What teacher wants to be known as the educator who kept a top athlete from a college scholarship because he gave him a C instead of a B, or refused to let him re-take an exam?
"What we've seen in recent years is grade inflation, guys getting all A's their senior year, kids going all over the country to prep schools and getting better grades than they ever got," Holland said. "I mean, come on!"
The greater premium on grades in core classes should send even more business to suspect schools. The NCAA is reluctant to reject credits from those schools, despite their academic reputations, for fear of lawsuits.
"The unintended consequence is that we are only passing our problems down to the high schools," Holland said. "This rationale for fraud is then carried into college -- highly visible athletes who are already 'stars' are valuable commodities and must be kept eligible or someone will be embarrassed. It is a short step from academic 'support' to academic 'fraud' under such circumstances."
At the heart of the problem are players who are becoming conditioned from high school to believe that someone else is responsible for their eligibility, he said.
"I'll take a kid with all C's and D's who knows he has to work his tail off before I would want to coach one with all A's his senior year and who expects me, or the academic support staff, to keep him eligible," Holland said.
Those most directly responsible for helping athletes get through four years of college, the nation's academic advisors, are on edge. Not only will they get students with lower test scores, but more is being asked of those students once they arrive on campus. The NCAA will be requiring that athletes complete 40 percent of their degree requirements after two years, up from 25 percent.
At the same time, the NCAA is cutting back on the allowable hours from remedial classes, which have helped academically challenged students make the transition to college work.
"It seems unfair to ask someone to make up that much ground in such a short time," said Moses, who is president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. "I'm worried that (some athletes) will feel the only way to succeed is to cheat."
The people behind the set of new academic standards say they are aware of its flaws, but insist that sticking with the status quo isn't acceptable, either. Right now, it's too easy to get through four years of athletic eligibility and never get close to a degree; the graduation rates for football and men's basketball players remain persistently low.
On the front end, even the SAT people have given the NCAA grief about its use of hard-and-fast cut scores. The College Board wants its test used as a tool for evaluation, not a bar that, if not cleared, renders meaningless the rest of the student's academic background.
"What else are we supposed to do?" said Jim Delany, Big Ten commissioner. "Discriminate?"
Holland suggests making all freshmen ineligible, to let them get their academic footing on campus without the demands of their sport. But many coaches, who don't have the patience to wait for those players, and athletic directors, who pay for their scholarships, aren't interested in such a gesture.
There are no easy answers when colleges use some students to make money.
Bates said the key to preventing the incoming system from being abused -- from college coaches recruiting too many players with no real chance of graduating -- will be the creation of penalties for programs in which high numbers of players fail academically. Those sanctions could range from a warning to a reduction in available scholarships. "Without those, I agree, we may have missed the boat," he said.
But those penalties haven't been approved yet, and Bates knows it will be a tough fight. Already, influential coaches groups like the National Association of Basketball Coaches have registered their opposition, arguing it's unfair to hold a coach responsible if his ace point guard decides to sleep through class.
Otherwise, in the deepest of ironies, the collective voice of coaches has been largely mute in the discussion of academic proposals that were approved Thursday. A decade ago, coaches initiated a roiling national debate about the NCAA's use of test scores. Invective was hurled at the college presidents who insisted on "raising" academic standards. John Thompson, then Georgetown's men's basketball coach, even sat out two games in protest.
Now, it's the college presidents leading the charge on a measure that's likely to give coaches access to some of those college prospects who, due to poor SAT scores, might have declared for the NBA draft right out of high school because it seemed like their only option.
"Sometimes it's best just to be quiet and smile," said Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
If the college game gets more exciting in the coming years, more inclusive of the best young talent available, more attractive to fans and viewers, credit will go to, of all people, the presidents. Once they survive the scorn from faculty for accepting players with 500 SAT scores.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..