If there is anything that we have learned about Mark Emmert during his tenure as NCAA president, it is that ensuring the education of collegiate athletes is of the utmost importance to him.
It starts with higher requirements for incoming freshmen. Beginning in 2015, incoming recruits must have a minimum GPA of 2.3 in their 16 core courses with a corresponding SAT/ACT score that sits on a sliding scale. For example, a recruit with a 2.5 GPA needs to get a score of at least 1,000 on the SATs to be eligible. Higher grades mean lower required SAT scores, and vice versa. The NCAA also required 10 of the 16 core courses to be completed before the start of the student's senior year in an effort to prevent emergency summer school sessions that are used for initial eligibility purposes. For incoming junior college transfers, the requirements are even more stringent, as the athletes need a GPA of at least 2.5 on their transferable credits.
The more significant rule change was pushed through last summer. By the 2015-2016 season, the NCAA will have a new baseline Academic Progress Report (APR) requirement for teams to avoid being banned from postseason play. The legislation bumps the minimum, four-year APR average up to 930 (roughly equivalent to a graduation rate of 50 percent) from 900. The NCAA has already started enforcing stricter rules on the APR, however, and UConn was among the 10 teams that learned this the hard way. The Huskies are currently banned from the 2013 Big East and the NCAA tournaments.
On the surface, the higher academic requirements seem like a good thing. Rare is the occasion that valuing education is bad. The problem is that, while well-intentioned, these rule changes are not perfect.
We'll start with the obvious: the incentive for academic fraud, as far down as the high school level, increases exponentially. Asking a kid to get a 2.5 GPA and a 1,000 on the SATs is not the same as asking that kid to get accepted into MIT, but it's also not exactly a cakewalk. Finding ways to get a player eligible have become a cottage industry at the high school level, and that is unlikely to change as more players are going to need the last minute help to get pushed through the NCAA's clearinghouse. And it's not like accusations of academic impropriety are all that difficult to find. Tony Mitchell is at North Texas now instead of Missouri (or the NBA?) because he fudged his grades at a Dallas high school. Then-Memphis coach John Calipari headed to the Final Four in 2008, in large part, to whoever took the SATs for Derrick Rose.
Once again, however, the bigger issue lies with the APR rule change.
Simply put, the APR is not a very useful tool for measuring academic success or graduation rates. The way the APR is determined is actually a bit simpler than it is made out to be. Each player is capable of earning up to two points per semester, which is four points for the year. One point is awarded for being in good academic standing at the end of the semester. Another is awarded for the player returning to the same school. The latter can be waived as a potential point for a number of reasons, including if the player transfers out of the program or signs a professional contract after leaving in good academic standing (earning a 2.6 GPA). The total number of points earned is added up and divided by the total number of potential points.
In other words, the reason that Calipari wants all of his one-and-done freshmen to finish up their spring semester classwork is so they don't hurt his team's APR score. When they enter the NBA draft in good academic standing, their score would be three out of three potential points instead of three out of four potential points. It is a subtle, but incredibly important, difference.
The way the APR is structured, teams don't need to ensure that players graduate, they simply need to make sure that they are in good academic standing when they leave.
And, again, it creates a huge incentive to cheat. Coaches have bonuses tied to APR scores and NCAA tournament appearances. Jim Calhoun lost $187,500 when his team failed to reach the APR threshold. With that on the line, what do you think is more important to a basketball coach: getting his players into classes that will challenge them intellectually or getting them into courses where they are more likely to get a good grade? How much more pressure will be put on the tutors to "help out" with a term paper due during the conference tournament? You're foolish and naive if you think North Carolina is the only place where athletes are getting graded for what amounts to no-show classes.
The irony here is that there is also an incentive on the NCAA's end to make sure that the nation's marquee programs are not going to be missing out on the NCAA tournament. Their contract with CBS and Turner is worth $771 million annually, and rest assured that those two companies want the best product possible to broadcast. What happens if, say, Kansas, Indiana and Louisville start to struggle academically and find themselves on the wrong side of the APR's 930 cutoff? You think CBS and Turner will be happy about losing their presence (and the presence of their fan base) because of a new academic cutoff?
Complicating matters further is the fact that head coaches have little to no control over much of what hurts their APR score. If players decide to transfer or to enter the draft, it is up to them whether or not they put in the effort in the classroom to help protect their former program. Syracuse took a huge APR hit in 2009 when Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris entered the draft and stopped attending classes. Did Jim Boeheim have any control over their decision to stop caring about school? What about Alabama's Tony Mitchell? He was kicked out of the program in mid-February and decided to enter the draft instead of transferring. One of the reasons he declared, according to a report from CBSSports.com, was that he still had work to do academically in order to transfer. That will hurt Alabama's APR, but is it really Anthony Grant's fault?
It is also worth mentioning that of the 10 schools that are to be suspended from the 2013 postseason due to their APR scores, only UConn and UC-Riverside have had the same coach employed for more than five years.
The goal of these academic reforms in college sports is a good one. I support the idea of promoting education for our college basketball players, because, as the NCAA loves to tell us, the overwhelming majority of them will be going pro in something other than hoops. Even the players who do end up in the NBA or in professional leagues abroad will see an end to their playing careers. At some point, they will need to enter the real world and get a real job in order to survive.
That task is immensely easier with a degree.