On Tuesday, the NCAA released its Academic Progress Rate numbers for the 2011-12 academic year, and the impact overall on the college basketball landscape was fairly minimal. There were three main takeaways:
1) UConn, despite still being below the four-year average requirement of 930, will be eligible for the 2014 NCAA tournament because the improvement in its most recent two-year average earns it an exemption.
2) Florida International will be ineligible for the 2014 postseason because, well, Isiah Thomas destroys everything he touches (sometimes literally), combining terrible on-court performance with off-court ruin.
3) The SWAC is getting crushed.
I'd like to tell you no one anticipated the third point, but that wouldn't be true. It was a primary concern in my APR column from August 2011, when the new rules went into place and a combined 18 of the 21 SWAC and MEAC schools would have been deemed ineligible had there not be a transition period for the new system.
The problem with the way the APR system works is it's systemically biased against cash-poor programs that don't have the academic support staff and facilities to match bigger-conference programs. The issue is exacerbated by the way some schools have operated their programs, using the nonconference season as a cash-generating national beatdown tour. The players are away from campus a lot during the season, which doesn't help.
Obviously, there's a bigger-picture question of whether HBCUs (and other small programs) should be allowed to operate this way to fund their athletic departments, but since no one's stepped in to stop it, NCAA rules have to be able to account for all different types of Division I programs, not just those with money and conference power.
The NCAA, to its modest credit, recently instituted an academic grant program in which non-BCS (or College Football Playoff, I guess) schools in the bottom 10 percent of budgets can receive up to $300,000 a year for three years to help bolster their academic support systems. Four of the six initial schools in the program are HBCUs, but that still now leaves 19 schools in the SWAC and MEAC, and other low-budget programs nationwide, scrambling to provide enough support for its athletes in order to help meet these eligibility requirements.
As it stands, four of the SWAC's 10 basketball teams will be ineligible for the 2014 postseason if exemption waivers are not granted. In this AL.com writeup focusing principally on Alabama State, which currently is facing four different teams at the school getting APR bans, NCAA president Mark Emmert says that the NCAA has given $6 million to underperforming schools, but then drops this fairly alarming quote: "I think it would be a mistake to say that student-athletes at these institutions are underperforming compared to the rest of the student body. That's rarely the case."
So the NCAA is maintaining rules that require higher standards for athletics teams than entire universities are able to maintain? Doesn't something seem egregiously wrong with that picture?
As a Penn grad and a supporter of a league that doesn't give athletic scholarships (although the vagaries of Ivy League financial aid can be discussed another day), academics are clearly a part of my personal college athletics agenda. I don't have an issue with the NCAA trying to tie athletics opportunities to academic success, even though the money involved in the NCAA tournament and college sports in general provides greater incentive for academic fraud.
I do, however, have issues with standards that apply differently for various members of the same Division I cohort, and how the same APR for two different schools can vary wildly in meaning. Getting helped or hurt by transfers based on a GPA standard, being dinged for pro prospects leaving school without finishing a semester and other aspects of the formula make the black-and-white numbers attached to a school anything but absolute. Again, maybe the MEAC and SWAC (especially) have to continue to rethink their models and their overarching athletics goals, but expecting a grant here and a waiver there to close the massive facilities and resources gaps these schools face is nonsensical. Either enact real change in the way the schools are allowed to operate, or grant them additional concessions. The current way the NCAA is operating, burying schools in holes they can't dig out of that were created by an instant NCAA rule change, isn't fair.