A Matter of Degrees
NCAA president Myles Brand made no effort to mask his enthusiasm when announcing the association's latest wave of academic reforms April 29. "This landmark legislation marks the beginning of a sea change in college sports," Brand said, referring to the incentives/disincentives package that will subject individual teams or entire athletic programs exhibiting substandard graduation rates to sanctions ranging from scholarship reductions to restricted NCAA membership. Added University of Kansas chancellor Robert Hemenway, chair of the NCAA Division I Board of Directors, "With these proposals, institutions, teams and coaches will know exactly what they need to accomplish to ensure their student-athletes are progressing in a timely fashion toward completing a degree. If they do not meet the requirements, they will suffer the consequences."
According to Diane Dickman, the NCAA's managing director for member services, the word echoing through the halls of association headquarters in Indianapolis is "historic."
"This reform effort is right. It is the right thing to do," Dickman says. "It's going to improve what's happening in intercollegiate athletics in terms of the educational component."
But some interested observers — mainly faculty groups — aren't so sure. Even those who support raising standards and holding institutions accountable for their student-athletes' academic progress feel the NCAA hasn't gone far enough. "I'd be happy if they had gone further, if the penalties had been stronger," says Indiana University professor Bob Eno, co-chair of the two-year-old Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent faculty organization endorsed by the faculty senates at 36 Division I-A institutions. "I would be happy if there were multiple scholarship penalties. But people like me are always going to be saying that."
"Obviously, most faculty would support academic reform," says Marquette University professor Greg Naples, president of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association. "However, I think there is serious concern about the effectiveness of the penalties that are being attached to this reform initiative. I think I can speak for at least some members of my board when I say these kinds of penalties are not nearly severe enough. They are deferred over such an extended period of time that the likelihood of any institution suffering as a result of failures in graduation-rate performance is remote."
Nevertheless, penalties introduced in April represent the sharpest teeth yet in the NCAA's academic reform efforts. But the fact that they are being couched in a kinder, gentler context — as disincentives — is no accident. "The goal in all of this is for schools to not get penalized, not because the expectations aren't high — they will be high — but in the hope that those who find themselves subject to penalty will improve and move into a place of acceptable academic performance. They'll have higher graduation rates. Student-athletes will be graduating. That's the goal."
The incentives / disincentives package (NCAA officials have yet to define potential "incentives") actually represents the culmination of a three-yearlong reforms initiative.
Last October, phase one brought the implementation of new academic standards for incoming and existing student-athletes. Among them, the number of core courses a prospective college athlete must complete in high school has increased from 13 to 14, with a jump to 16 coming in 2008. Meanwhile, current college athletes must adhere to stricter standards in terms of their progress toward a degree. Whereas athletes formerly needed to have 25 percent of their degree credits completed entering their third year, 50 percent entering their fourth year, and 75 entering their fifth year, now it's a 40-60-80 progression, what the NCAA now refers to as its academic-progress rate. "So really we've put student-athletes on a five-year graduation plan," Dickman says. "If they're going to remain eligible to compete, they're going to be on a five-year plan to graduate."
Graduation-rate calculations and their impact have also changed. The NCAA will no longer adhere to graduation rates released by the U.S. Department of Education, but rather to something it calls the graduation-success rate, which officials (not to mention team coaches) feel more accurately represents the real graduation picture. "The major flaw with the fed rate is that a student who transfers from one four-year institution to another never shows up as a graduate, even if he or she graduates from the second institution," Dickman says. "Our data shows that among all the populations of student-athletes — 2-year-4-year transfers, 4-4 transfers, and those who go to one four-year institution and stay there the whole time — the highest percentage of graduates are found among 4-4 transfers, and yet they're never accounted for in the federal grad rates. We know that our grad rates are higher than what the fed rates indicate."
Fallout from the fed rates has been inescapable come the arrival each March of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Rarely has the media resisted mention of how few programs among those reaching the tournament's Sweet 16 had recently graduated more than half their players (only four programs this year, according to the most recent statistics available). The NCAA's figures will be far less misleading, according to Dickman. "If you take a transfer and graduate him or her, you get credit for that graduation. If a player leaves your institution, but he or she would have been academically eligible based on the five-year grad plan, you don't have to count them as a non-grad," she says.
That part of the package should spare more than a few athletic departments public shame, but the NCAA's latest reforms focus remains holding academic underachievers accountable. New penalties take two forms: historic and contemporaneous. The NCAA is currently in the midst of a three-year period of data collection, during which athletic departments exhibiting a history of poor academic performance will receive a warning (perhaps with the requirement to submit a corrective action plan). If by the fall of 2007 no evidence of sufficient improvement exists, sanctions will be meted out in phases — from restrictions in scholarships and recruiting to bans from pre- and post-season competition to restrictions in NCAA membership (which, with its adverse effect on scheduling, could be tantamount to the death penalty, Dickman says).
But whether any program will receive the latter of these so-called historic penalties is debatable, according to Naples. "This may be analogous to the certification process that colleges and universities go through," he says. "At this point in time, hardly ever do we hear even a hint of anyone failing certification. And I would argue that the process really ensures that."
Like Eno's coalition, which posted on its web site a position statement backing the incentives/disincentives package the day of its release, William Friday calls the reforms a significant step forward. But the chair of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics wishes the sanctions hit schools harder where it hurts. "I think the sanctions should probably come a little sooner and be a little more severe," says Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina. "After 11 years of working with the commission, I've learned that the way you get schools' attention is to deprive them of access to money. Other sanctions don't seem to garner much respect."
Perhaps lacking financial punch (at least directly), the NCAA's contemporaneous penalties nonetheless offer some immediacy. Dickman explains: "If a student-athlete who's on athletic aid is not retained by the institution and he or she would not have been academically eligible had he or she returned — in other words, this is the real academic casualty — then the total amount of aid that he or she was receiving cannot be awarded to an incoming student-athletes for a period of one year. That scholarship just sits vacant."
But will this be enough to effect real change in the way athletic departments look at academics? Dickman sees three possible avenues of corrective action any troubled program might consider: greater selectivity in admissions, improved academic support services or enhanced flexibility in day-to-day scheduling. "I think it has to be a broad look, and obviously different institutions will have different solutions," she says.
Even the sanctioning process will take into account institutional mission, Dickman adds. For example, a state university required by mission to admit any state resident with a high school degree may produce a general student body graduation rate of only 25 percent, yet the graduation success rate among men's basketball players might be 35 percent. The latter figure may give the impression that the men's basketball program is underachieving academically by national standards, when in reality it is overachieving on its own campus. "You don't want to do this mission-blind," Dickman says, "because there is a role that institutional mission plays."
Both supporters and skeptics among the nation's faculty organizations recognize the hands-on role that faculty plays in this, and at least one fears that the NCAA's new initiatives might put greater pressure on schools to make graduates out of athletes, whether they deserve that distinction or not.
Since it first brought together concerned faculty from across the country in 1999, the Drake Group has trumpeted academic reform via public disclosure of the courses being taken by athletes, the professors teaching those courses, and the grades those professors are awarding — all the while ensuring the athletes' right to privacy. "A university's whole justification is to search for the truth, wherever it may lead. I want to start telling the truth. I want to open this closed society," says Drake Group founder Jon Ericson, a former professor at Drake University — which, Ericson says, wasn't immune to grade-changing and other closed-door tactics in the interest of keeping athletes eligible. "I do believe once faculty can no longer hide, when they're forced to be accountable, it will bring about behavior change. We can't get real reform until we're willing to look at the problem honestly and openly. The NCAA proposals do none of that. In fact, they are going to create greater pressure to resort to more of this kind of corruption."
"If your response to raised standards is to say that all they're going to do is increase corruption, then you're against standards," says Eno. "The point that the Drake Group is making is that the standards won't mean anything, that they will result in increased evasion of standards unless we come up with a mechanism for making sure that we meet those standards honestly. We don't have that mechanism right now. I think Jon is certainly on to something with his principle of disclosure. This is a key tool that we could use to much better monitor what's going on and decide how we take action if there are problems."
For its part, the NCAA vows to "go after the cheaters," as Dickman puts it, and will do so with an enforcement staff significantly beefed up during Brand's brief tenure as president. "Academic fraud exists now. It's terrible, horrible, unacceptable behavior, but it certainly is not fully an athletics issue. It's the president's job, the provost's job, the dean's job, the faculty's job. It's all the pieces of the puzzle at any university that result in the proper academic wheels turning," Dickman says. "I don't think anybody would say there's never any pressure to change grades or do things that are fraudulent. But the reality is the right things have to be in place to ensure that doesn't happen. We play a role at the NCAA, but each institution plays its role, too. An institution puts its own reputation on the line if it's giving out degrees that aren't valid."
Naples agrees. "Sure there may be some pressure, but the fact of the matter is faculty are the ones who have the direct contact with these student-athletes, and if they're willing to compromise their ethics and principles, that's something that is very difficult to contend with," he says. "And to say that a lot of these kinds of academic defaults are the responsibility of athletics singularly is, I think, inappropriate, because faculty have just as much responsibility — even more so. And they have not exercised that kind of responsibility."
Ericson considers the NCAA an "irrelevant" voice in debates regarding academic integrity ("Their business is scheduling contests and championships and policing inappropriate behavior in the athletic arena," he says). Still, Ericson concedes that the NCAA does control the classroom in one sense — when the athlete isn't there. To him, coaches and professors operate under an NCAA-endorsed double standard. "We all support the coach who insists his athletes attend practice on the argument that the coach cannot teach them if they aren't there. The coach, of course, is teaching someone who is already at a blue-chip level of preparation for what the coach is going to teach," Ericson says. "Now come into my class, where the athlete's academic preparation is often unsatisfactory and sometimes embarrassing, and say he can miss six, seven, eight classes, come dead tired to others and work 20 hours a week on a job. This is why I call the NCAA proposals mere tinkering."
Naples, too, sees an issue in absenteeism, but his beef involves the lack of faculty voices on relevant NCAA policy-making bodies. He cites the fact that only three faculty sat on the 14-member working group that hammered out the latest reforms. Only three faculty sit on the NCAA's 50-plus-member Management Council (compared to 13 conference commissioners). No faculty representation exists on the association's championships committee. "If you had one or two, and someone raised the issue of a college playoff, faculty might say, 'Wait a minute. Do you guys know about the difference between semesters and trimesters? Do you know how the academic calendar works?' " Naples says. "Look, it is not the intention of faculty to say that we ought to administer and control athletics. That's naïve and it probably doesn't make a lot of sense. But the faculty perspective on issues has to be much more visible. It's a credible perspective; it just simply has not been elevated. We're trying to elevate this perspective, to make known that there are concerns by faculty, so that when there are deliberations at whatever levels in the NCAA, that perspective is weighed and considered."
If these groups share one common view with the NCAA, it's that intercollegiate athletics plays an important role within the academy. The groups' very existence is evidence of that. None of the aforementioned faculty — not even Ericson, who was cut from the University of Nebraska baseball team in both his freshman and sophomore years ("Not many people can say that," he says) — want to see athletic departments become divorced from universities, or disappear altogether.
"I think most of us believe, as I do as a former student-athlete, that athletics has huge educational value, but it has to be in the context of the educational community," says Dickman, a two-time academic All-America honoree in golf at the University of Tulsa. "And that's what we're trying to do. Where we need a re-emphasis on the educational component, this program is going to move us in that direction."
"We tend to focus on basketball players, football players and sometimes hockey players when we're looking at issues concerning the revenue sports — students who are brought in with backgrounds that aren't strong academically because they're going to contribute to high-profile teams that generate revenue and visibility for the university," Eno says. "Athletics has a much broader range. There are a lot of students in the Olympic sports for whom academic success is really tied into their involvement in and self-improvement through athletics. I'm not convinced that in those cases you can get the best out of students if you take them out of athletics."
In a way, the new standards have put the ball squarely in the academy's court. As a professor of early Chinese philosophy who has seen academically underprepared but determined athletes succeed in his classroom, Eno accepts that. But there are lingering doubts. "I'm not optimistic that we're actually going to get this done in the right way, so that the new standards contribute toward a system that has integrity, that involves disclosure," he says. "Our job is to overcome those odds. And if we do, I think the graduation rates will be fine, because we'll be bringing in fewer unprepared students and distracting them less with weekday competitions and overly long seasons. And we'll have more integrity throughout the operation of athletic programs, which will be more closely integrated with the academic mission and activities of the institution overall. Those are the good outcomes. They are not likely, but possible — if we stick to it."
It will be years before we assess whether the NCAA's new system of academic standards and performance-based disincentives produce graduating classes that more closely resemble recruiting classes in the number of student-athletes they hold. Predictably, Dickman remains upbeat. "The goal is to increase graduation rates and to ensure that the educational component and mission of our institutions is being met for student-athletes," she says. "If we see cultural shift where it's needed, then it will have been successful."
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