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Wednesday, May 14, 2014
APR scores show widening gap

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

The "Haves" of college athletics -- also known as the BCS conferences, the Big Five, or my personal preference, the PowerBall Five -- are getting ready to separate themselves from the "Have Nots," with a vote for autonomy among the hot agenda items facing the NCAA this summer.

The truth, of course, is that they've already separated themselves in every way, a delineation made all the more clear on Wednesday, when the NCAA released its latest Academic Progress Rate (APR) information.

The good news is that across the board, college teams are doing better in the classroom -- overall APR is up two points from a year ago, including a five-point rise for men's basketball and a two-point jump for football.

Still, 36 teams failed to reach the 930 APR threshold and will face a postseason ban.

That sounds bad, and it is. But the real devil, as it usually is, is in the details.

It is the "Have Nots" that are suffering the most, the ones that can't afford new sneakers for their basketball teams or serviceable locker rooms for their football teams, let alone full-time academic support staffs.

Of those 36 teams, 18 come from the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

More specifically, according to the NCAA data, 27 percent of all HBCU squads failed to meet the needed 930 compared to just 6 percent across the rest of Division I athletics.

While there are significant challenges, we are headed in the right direction. On the other hand, having to restrict anyone from postseason play is not anyone's choice, but it does have the impact of getting schools focused.

-- NCAA president Mark Emmert

These schools, with prideful histories and longstanding traditions, are literally being run out of business.

To the NCAA's credit (wow -- I typed that), it recognized that these schools aren't in the same place as their peers. It has offered them more flexibility and time to reach that 930 mark. It also opened up its own coffers to the tune of $5 million to help these schools get their academic houses in order.

"We recognized that schools have different roles and missions and the challenges of hitting that 930, which we selected because it equates to a 50 percent graduation rate, varies greatly,'' NCAA president Mark Emmert said. "At an Ivy League school, that means one thing. At a lower-revenue institution, it means another.''

There has been progress.

The APRs of the HBCU schools have steadily risen, from 934 to 953 on average. But there is still so much to be done, as evidenced by those 18 programs from 12 different HBCUs.

"While there are significant challenges, we are headed in the right direction,'' Emmert said. "On the other hand, having to restrict anyone from postseason play is not anyone's choice, but it does have the impact of getting schools focused.''

Emmert sounded almost apologetic in that last sentence.

Understandably, the NCAA has to have a one-punishment-fits-all structure here. Otherwise it becomes impossible to differentiate.

But there is an inherent unfairness in hitting schools and teams that have little to almost nothing in the way of academic resources the same as those that have full-time -- and even team-specific -- academic tutors and counselors (some of whom travel on the road), assistant coaches hovering around like helicopter parents and, even occasionally, separate academic service buildings.

It begs the question: How in the world can any "Have" schools fail to meet the required 930? Seriously if those athletes devoted half as much attention to their academic work as they did the apparent inattention, they'd hit the 930 easily.

For the others -- specifically, the "Have Nots" -- focus isn't the problem. It's money. It's money for the general student population, money for the schools, and money for the athletic departments. There just isn't much of it to go around.

Yet instead of focusing on these schools, where the athletes in true NCAA slogan-ese will go on to be professionals in something other than their sport, college athletics will spend this summer trying to figure out how to better line the already mink-lined pockets of the Powerball Five.

It's the way of the world, I suppose. We will spend more man hours Googling the whereabouts of Casey Kasem than 300 abducted Nigerian girls. We are more worried about Solange Knowles' anger issues than what's happening in the Ukraine.

That doesn't make us bad people. It makes us people, happy to be occupied by the sensational than the important.

But shouldn't the more detailed APR numbers at least give us pause, or can't we at least take a moment to absorb the irony? As it holds on to its last thread of idealism, college sports purports to still offer people a chance at academic success, perhaps an opportunity people otherwise couldn't afford -- literally or figuratively.

And here we are, with a group of athletes whose APR numbers equate to academic poverty and we fret more about the ones that have every resource available to them and how we can actually give them more.

There is no need to vote on autonomy.

The "Haves" already have left the building.