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NCAA rulebook needs to reverse its field

August 21, 2011

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“Never mistake activity for achievement,” John Wooden said, as the world nodded at his wisdom and ignored his advice.

Wooden would have been amused, and not fooled, by the summit meeting of university presidents this month.

NCAA president Mark Emmert, formerly the president at LSU and Washington and thus familiar with tails that wag dogs, brought 50 of his brethren together.

Their proposals were honorable and, in some cases, startling.

Especially the one that says a school can miss the NCAA basketball tournament if too many of its players forget that book-learnin’ is part of the bargain here.

Can you imagine?

Theoretically, the Big 12 could hold its conference tournament with only one school eligible to reach the NCAAs, no matter who actually wins. Or two WAC schools could reach the final, to determine the conference’s automatic bid, but only one would qualify academically.

Talk about March Madness.

Had these laws been on the books in 2011, Connecticut would not have participated in the NCAA Tournament that it won.

UConn’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) was 893. The new minimum to get into the tournament will be 930, although it will be calculated as a four-year average, and will not take effect for at least three years.

Syracuse and Providence also would have fallen short. In the Pac-10, USC was under 930. In the Big West, only Cal Poly SLO, Long Beach State, UC Davis and Pacific would have qualified.

The presidents point out that 930, out of a possible 1,000, does not mean that every athlete must be able to memorize Paradise Lost.

In fact, they say it only connotes a 50 percent graduation rate. Only five Pac-10 basketball teams broke 50 percent, if you use 2003 figures, and Arizona was at 20 percent.

However, the APR does not measure strict graduation rates. It measures eligibility and stability. Schools gets one point apiece for players who keep themselves eligible — a ridiculously low bar at many schools — and who stay in school, as opposed to transferring or turning pro.

The most frequent criticism of APR is that it penalizes schools like UConn and Syracuse whose basketball players good enough to turn pro early.

But the NCAA says that any player who maintains his academic standing in his lame-duck year, the way John Wall did at Kentucky, will not damage his school’s APR when he leaves.

Punish schools that let academics slide. Who in the name of Michelangelo (he had a high ceiling) can be opposed to that?

Well, this is not a good vs. evil question, much to the chagrin of most college sports commentators.

The less prosperous schools will suffer because they can’t afford the academic support systems — i.e., eligibility factories — that BCS-conference schools can.

The heavy emphasis on APR will drive many players to even lower common denominators of curricula. To ensure their grades, they’ll steer clear of Fundamentals Of Dance and sign up for Introductory Fundamentals Of Dance.

More pressure will land on those renegade professors who actually demand a level of classroom skill and don’t care about courtside tickets.

Again, the only sure way to put athletics back into the bottle is to get rid of the athletic scholarship, as the U. of Chicago and its brethren have done with absolutely no damage to either the classroom or the field.

That, of course, is rampant fantasy.

But would APRs improve if the presidents had done something really radical, like banning spring practice in football or limiting NCAA basketball tournament games to weekends only? Probably.

Again, let’s give the presidents some room here. The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, and they seem interested, this time, in real-world improvements.

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