The best laid plans

With the publication of this year’s APR numbers by the NCAA and the resulting penalties associated with those academic institutions that failed to meet the established standards, I’ve seen a certain theme crop up in stories and opinion pieces on the matter – the APR is another way The Man is keeping the little guy down, even it it’s unintentional.

From the New York Times:

… Of the 37 football programs penalized by the N.C.A.A. on Tuesday, only two were from the six major conferences that comprise the Bowl Championship Series. Washington State lost eight scholarships, and Kansas two.

“There’s such a difference between the B.C.S. schools and those who are not,” Tomey said. “I don’t think it’s an intended difference, but it highlights financial things like not being able to throw money at the problem and solve it very quickly.”

Here’s what The Wizard of Odds posted:

Not exactly sure what Myles Brand has accomplished in his tenure as Grand Poobah of the NCAA outside of collecting a fat paycheck. He likely would point to his fraudulent Academic Progress Report, which was released Tuesday.

This annual report regularly punishes the smaller schools and rewards the larger institutions, which are able to prop up their so-called “student-athletes” with an endless supply of tutors, favorable professors and state-of-the-art academic centers.

And TSN’s Spencer Hall (aka EDSBS’ Orson Swindle) has this to say about the APR story:

… In practice, the APR’s effects are less “pinpoint bombing run” accurate in terms of hitting intended targets than they are “cluster-bomb random.”

Schools might escape punishment via a wide and colorful variety of dodges. First, if a team’s academic score is weak it might selectively put walk-ons on scholarship to boost its score. Second, a team can, seemingly by random fiat, get “forgiveness” for its score. In short: The bigger your overall budget as a program, the more likely “forgiveness” will come your way.

Worse still, the punishment of football programs seems to follow Bobby Knight’s old dictum that went something like this: “The NCAA got so mad at Indiana, it punished Ball State.” Of the 37 programs docked scholarships or practice time, only two (Washington State, Kansas) affected in the 2008 season come from BCS conferences.

The rest come from the exurbs of the college football map: San Jose State, New Mexico State, Florida Atlantic and Florida International.

The NCAA surely did not set out to create a policy making the midget class of college football even less competitive than before by forcing small schools to divert even more of their limited resources to academic support for athletes. There was no meeting of the Ohio States and Floridas in a secret island lair beneath a volcano where, after toasts and evil laughing, they devised a plan to eliminate the threat of smaller schools looking to field competitive football teams.

Rather than some sort of conspiracy, the APR and its sanctioned, slow strangulation of smaller schools unable to pay for massive academic support centers is the result of something even more unstoppable and faceless: bad policy.

The NCAA and its members, faced with the legitimate issue of measuring how well schools balance athletics and academics, created a well-intentioned system. Like many well-intentioned systems — such as President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act — its actual effects are disastrous.

Much of this smacks of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, quite frankly. Even taking as a given the disparity of resources in college athletics programs across America, exactly how is it a bad thing that the NCAA has forced its member institutions to focus on making an effort to see that their student-athletes are given attention towards working to earn a degree?

I mean, if my choice is between Dick Tomey’s hand wringing – and consider that by his own admission, his school didn’t have an academic support program for his players as recently as three years ago – and the sanctimonious but ultimately cynical special admissions program put into place at South Carolina (under which Spurrier could have an entire recruiting class of 25 admitted in a given year), sorry, Mr. Tomey, but I’ll take the consequences of having the APR, warts and all.

I live in a state that, historically speaking… well, to call its public education policy one of benign neglect is being kind. So if the University of Georgia wants to direct a fair amount of resources towards seeing to it that a group of kids that got the shaft from a support standpoint in high school are given what they need to get their academics in order to obtain a meaningful college education, all I can say is go, dog, go.

That’s not to say that there aren’t abuses of the system. Hall is right when he criticizes the ease with which waivers are granted to certain programs. To an extent, Tomey’s argument that his program got screwed for honoring the lax academic standards of his predecessor isn’t without some merit. But it’s hard to say that’s a valid defense. It’s just that other schools shouldn’t be allowed to get away with what is most likely similar past bad behavior.

The Wiz makes a telling point when he references favorable professors. No doubt there are schools that tailor courses and professors to game the system so that student-athletes retain their eligibility without going through a meaningful learning process. But that kind of stuff was going on before the APR metric came into play. And it has nothing to do with the “big guys have the resources that the little guys can’t compete with” criticism of APR that is being made.

Here’s the thing: flaws aside, what’s the alternative? None of the three pieces I cited have a different proposition to put forward.


UPDATE: Orson responds to the last point by noting that column limitations prevented him from making any proposals of his own. Fair enough. But all he has to offer at his blog (where presumably those limits go by the wayside) is this:

… Solutions? We’re not into silly metrics like the APR, especially when unevenly applied. However, if you insist on having one, make sure the mechanism includes viable mechanisms for recovery from poor academic performance and the ability to re-enter D-1 following a period of “demonstrated improvement.” Otherwise, we’d be fine not having one at all, or even–gasp–having a non-quantitative review process not dependent on one silly, easily manipulated metric.

Which, when you boil it down, is really just revisiting the original criticism he made in his column. Oh, and the NCAA monitoring “a non-quantitative review process” for academics? I bet everybody in the state of Alabama would be down with that – it’s been such a crowd pleasing approach to policing recruiting.


UPDATE #2: Somebody asks the $64,000 question:

The disparity between BCS and non-BCS schools in the NCAA’s hammer this week over Academic Performance Rates got me thinking: is there a process of natural selection at work? After all, of the 37 football programs hit with NCAA penalties Tuesday, only six were from BCS conferences. In a New York Times story on the subject, San Jose State coach Dick Tomey, whose team lost nine scholarships and four weekly hours of practice this season, called it “class warfare” as smaller colleges try to keep pace financially to help academics. “There’s such a difference between the BCS schools and those who are not,” Tomey said in the Times. “I don’t think it’s an intended difference, but it highlights financial things like not being able to throw money at the problem and solve it very quickly.”

So that begs the question: if the resources aren’t there to solve the problem, and there are tons of empty seats at games, is that school meant to be Division I-A (er, the Football Bowl Subdivision)? I mean really. The NCAA has allowed so much expansion in I-A, and many of those universities are set up to fail. They’re allowed to average only 15,000 fans a game–and even if they don’t, it never gets to a sanction stage. A school just creatively counts “tickets sold”, and it’s out of the woods. But there are never enough tickets sold at the 15,000-per-game level to generate enough revenue to compete on a long-term basis. Nobody at the NCAA wants to tell Tomey that maybe I-A isn’t meant to be, though. Especially the WAC. That would be disastrous for the conference…



Filed under Academics? Academics.

6 responses to “The best laid plans

  1. peacedog

    It isn’t like regular students don’t often go the favorable professor route. Many game the system. The problem stems from shoddy curricula/lousy profs as much as it stems from “blue warrior need beer badly”.

    APR is in need of reform, but that’s nothing new. The “little guy shaft” is clearly an unintended consequence (and we should expect more of those than usual where the NCAA is concerned, but never mind).

    The penalties probably need to be adjusted (I’m not sure yanking scholarships is the best idea). Part of me thinks conferences should be penalized where possible, and that they can in turn settle things internally.

    And yeah, the waiver thing is weird. Not as weird as Arizona just being clueless, though.


  2. peacedog

    Oh, I was in an upper level economics class with a decent professor who was known for his re-use of the same test materials. I didn’t know this, and was cruising merrily along until test 3 when it was discovered by a friend and I. I didn’t use said materials as I had a low A on his grade scale.

    Some asshole in the class went to him before test 3 and complained that people were getting old copies of his tests – something whose worth was dubious because at this point the A cutoff was somewhere in the mid 80s. He was pretty upset at the news (really? you didn’t change a test for 10 years, duh) and force-adjusted his curve into the traditional 70/80/90 C/B/A format and screwed a lot of people. I magically went from A to B, and I never even freaking cheated.

    I hope that person gets the clap.

    In any case, that’s just one of any number of examples of people gaming the system. I know guys who got paid to write papers. Fraternities and other assemblages of students keep test banks. Students cajole, beg, and even fake their way to improvements. Students find ways to get by with minimal amounts of work (I’m not just a member of this group). and so on and so forth.

    I dunno, I guess I’m surprised that other people (not the APR commentors, mind you) seem surprised at what goes on with the athletic side of things.


  3. pd, far be it from me to say that the APR is perfect. But I find this “we don’t have the resources to compete with the big boys, it’s so unfair” argument unconvincing. This ain’t the Soviet Union; nobody’s holding a gun to San Jose State’s (figurative) head and saying you must have a football program. It’s the school’s choice. Once you make the choice to participate, you don’t get to pick what rules you want to follow.

    Besides, when you admit that you don’t have an academic support program at all, that’s not a question of resources, but a question of priorities.

    That’s not to say the rules shouldn’t be fairly implemented across the board. They should. But throwing up your hands and saying we shouldn’t have to follow our academic mission because we can’t spend like the other guys can… well, it would be more honest for a university to shut down its football program and sponsor a semi-pro team. Probably cheaper, too.


  4. peacedog

    Oh, I pretty much agree and I wasn’t clear.

    I think the little guys have an argument of sorts, but it’s not precisely the argument they think it is. Really, I think the larger issues is that the APR is just flawed even if well meaning (so, examine and revise it if need be). However, the little guys are now deciding this is an excuse and the argument is already being overstated in media, both national and virtual.

    And this is why I find Arizona’s lack of a support program funny. I’m not sure it’s a priority thing, though it’s a good point. Every college already has an academic support program in place. Student tutors and note takers and whatnot. Most colleges will get you hooked up with one as needed, whether it’s heading to the student center to get tudor information, or asking a teacher, or an advisor, and so on and so forth.

    A basic “athletic support program” just leverages this, and you don’t need UGA’s or Texas’ AD income to set that up. If you haven’t set that up, you probably haven’t been paying attention (really, Arizona, you didn’t notice everyone else doing it? Were you even paying attention to how your kids did in the class room outside of the occasional progress report from an advisor stating a kid was eligible?).

    UGA and Texas will support it by pimping the ever loving crap out of the process. Academic support takes place in a secure room at the heart of a gigantic floating fortress that students access via teleportation. But they’re still accessing the same tudors and attending mandatory study hall.

    UGA’s money isn’t responsible for it’s latest rating (remember all the flak we used to take while the Donnan era dominated the records? heh). The money absolutely enhances everything. The policies are just as important (nay, moreso), and the mandatory study hall can take place in a class room or similar locale just as easily as the Hall of Justice.

    I believe any division 1 school should be able to get most of it’s players to pass without too much effort. If money is really that thin that they can’t get a single person from the counselors office to pitch in, maybe they should be in 1AA. Or give up football, as you said.


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