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New Academic Requirements A Baby Step On The Road To NCAA Reform

In the wake of the scandals at Miami, Ohio State, North Carolina, and USC, it appears that the NCAA's illusion of amateurism might be falling apart. But are two recent rule changes laying the groundwork for true reform?

You can't spell heap of trouble without "The U".

The allegations of widespread and blatant corruption at the University of Miami that were so painstakingly detailed by the ace staff at Yahoo! Sports yesterday should really come as no surprise.  As our own Gethin Coolbaugh wrote yesterday, the report really only confirms what we knew all along.

The NCAA is broken and is in desperate need of reform.

If even half of what is contained in Charles Robinson's report is true, it's likely that the NCAA will come down hard on Miami.  After the 4 year process of investigating USC, it's safe to assume that we're a long way from a resolution to the situation, but for the first time in 25 years, it's fair to wonder if the dreaded "death penalty" might be in play for the once proud Hurricanes franchise. 

The death penalty hasn't been utilized in college football since the NCAA essentially disbanded the SMU program in 1988 after repeated and willful violations of the most serious NCAA rules (paying players).  The SMU football program has never really recovered and only just now is showing signs of returning to respectability under the watchful eye of head coach June Jones.  Yet, despite the severity of the penalties, top tier schools have continued to flout the rules and do just about anything in the name of winning games and making money. 

So what's the key to reforming the NCAA and putting as many schools as possible on an even playing field?

There are really only two schools of thought on what type of reform would help collegiate athletics.  The first is that the NCAA should essentially throw away the rule book and allow teams to pay players, sign with agents and essentially make them professionals. 

The other school of thought is to push back in the other direction and try to put the "student" back in student athlete to some degree, because as of right now, it's clear that the top schools serve as little more than NFL and NBA farm teams and a breeding ground for teenage mercenaries seeking to kill a few years by plying their trade for the highest bidder.  Rarely do you hear upper tier recruits talk about getting their degrees (a rare example being Boston College freshman Albert Louis-Jean who spoke about getting his Masters Degree).

Personally, I've always been in favor of providing scholarship athletes with a cost of living stipend, but I am in no way in favor of providing players a salary as though they were professional athletes.  I truly believe that these kids are students who are there to develop skills that will help them in life beyond their athletic abilities.  But, until the NCAA makes real rule changes that make education a priority, coaches will continue to bring in kids who don't truly belong in college.

Lost in the shadows of $50,000 cash payments to Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, stripper parties, prostitutes and abortions is that, at the much hyped "NCAA retreat" two weeks ago, a few important pieces of legislation were passed that could begin to tilt things toward bringing student athletes back to the NCAA.

President Mark Emmert and a slew of university presidents passed swift and, some would say, devastating academic requirements that will make it much harder for marginal students to qualify for Division 1 Universities and much harder for schools to hide marginal students once they are on campus.

The first new requirement is the new "zero loopholes" minimum GPA that is required for all students to qualify for an athletic scholarship.  The old minimum of 2.0 essentially meant that a student would have to do little more than show up for class on a regular basis and not sleep through those classes.  But a 2.5, while not an outstanding grade means that kids in high school will have to put in a decent effort so that they can move on to college. 

The other impact of a higher minimum GPA is that it will, to some degree, limit the ability of large public universities (looking in your direction Florida State, USC, etc) to slip kids into the university based almost entirely on their athletic abilities.  To provide a direct example, reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose would not have been admitted to the University of Memphis for his one semester of college based on his high school GPA. 

The other, possibly more important requirement is that each college team must maintain a collective rolling APR (Academic Progress Rate) of 930 over a 4 year period in order to be eligible for post-season play (read: bowl games, NCAA tournaments).  This represents an increase of 30 points from the old minimum.

For the uninformed, the Academic Progress Rate is a metric that was devised by the NCAA to track the progress of athletes on their way to graduation. Players earn points based on their ability to stay eligible in school each semester and staying at the school. Adjustments are made in the latter category for players that leave school early to pursue a professional career.  The mathematical formula for the APR is as follows:

A team's APR is the total points of a team's roster at a given time divided by the total points possible. Since this result is a decimal number, the CAP decided to multiply it by 1,000 for ease of reference. Thus, a raw APR score of .925 translates into the 925 that will become the standard terminology.

The new minimum score of 930 means that approximately 65% of athletes on each team must be on track to graduate every semester for four years.  The reason that this is an important tool for NCAA reform is that it will require students to actually attend classes and maintain their minimum GPA in order to keep their scholarships.  For coaches, the new minimum score will force them and their staffs to emphasize an athlete's classroom performance and make it much harder to hide them from the NCAA.

Where we will see the most impact from the APR system is in college basketball where athletes are only required to attend school for one year (in most cases just one semester) before moving on to a professional career.  Often times with one-and-done players in college basketball, the players only truly attend classes for the fall semester.  If they are eligible after the initial semester they are able to register for the spring semester where they simply stop attending classes and then withdraw at the conclusion of basketball season.  With the lower collective APR score, a basketball team could handle one or two of those per year, now the margin for error becomes much slimmer. Depending on the outcome of the ongoing NBA labor negotiations (owners are pushing for an increase in the age limit), this could change the recruiting strategy for a number of teams including John Calipari at Kentucky who thrives on the backs of players only intending to stay for one season.

A look at the newly released APR scores for the last four years indicates exactly how slim the margin for error will be.  If this new rule were in place last year, UConn would not have been eligible for last year's NCAA tournament and obviously wouldn't have been able to win the national championship.  In football, 3 teams in the ACC's Atlantic Division (#5 Florida State, Maryland, North Carolina State) would be ineligible for a bowl game this upcoming season.

Ultimately, these two rule changes could have a major impact on the way schools recruit and manage talent for their teams.  In addition, those players that are more concerned with their NBA or NFL prospects might not see the benefit in going to college if they're going to be challenged academically and might choose to play professionally overseas (basketball) or attend junior college (football) where the requirements aren't nearly as strict.  Potentially, this could lead to fewer incidents like those seen at USC, Ohio State and now Miami where players aren't in school to receive an education that so many of them need but aren't pushed to get.

Detractors of these new rules will tell you that it will simply lead to widespread academic fraud that will further undermine the mission of collegiate athletics.  While that's certainly a possibility, this is where the pledge of the NCAA to get tougher of violators comes into play.  There should be far more severe penalties levied against schools that commit academic fraud than against those that harbor players who are selling memorabilia.  The reason being that academic fraud goes against the very principles that the NCAA supposedly stands for.

The other major complaint is that these new rules will damage smaller schools that don't have the financial means to provide the support that their students need to remain eligible.  The most commonly used example is the SWAC which would have had just one basketball team that would have been cleared for NCAA tournament play (bravo Alcorn State).

Without bringing the subject of race to the forefront of the argument, the reality is that, again, education is supposed to be the reason these kids are going to school, not athletics.  Many schools from conferences like the SWAC use their Division 1 basketball and football programs as the funding arm for the entire athletic department (and in some cases, the whole school) by sending them off to various parts of the country to be used as live scrimmage fodder for the elite teams in the country in exchange for a six figure payday.

The bottom line being that if you have to send your basketball or football team all over the country in order to fund your athletic department, but still can't afford a proper academic support structure, maybe it's time to re-evaluate whether you're doing your kids a disservice by competing in division 1 athletics and handing out scholarships that can be worth in excess of $200,000.

The NCAA has a ton of problems to deal with in the near future, not the least of which is the appearance that the organization would never truly punish sacred cash cows like Miami and Ohio State because it is more concerned about revenues than education. However, the new APR and GPA requirements represent the first step in a long journey that will hopefully bring collegiate athletics back from the brink.