In The Penalty Box

In The Penalty Box
The push for academic reform leaves some schools lagging

By Kimberly Davis

In the world of big-time college athletics, academic reform is now a mandate. Why? Because the National Collegiate Athletic Association says so. And what the NCAA says for its member institutions goes. The same is true for smaller, less profitable programs and schools. But with less money, small schools, including most historically Black colleges and universities, have fewer resources to allocate to the NCAA’s academic reform goals.

Recent sanctions and scholarship losses at some HBCUs have led to questions about the disproportionate impact of academic reform on current and future student-athletes at those schools. Because of the historical mission of HBCUs — educating Black students when no other schools would — some experts have suggested that the NCAA allow for exemptions, protecting HBCUs and other minority learning institutions from unequal punishment under the new rules.

The NCAA is the umbrella organization that governs almost all intercollegiate sporting events in the nation, ensuring standardized rules enforcement and fair play, among other things. With the exception of college football’s postseason bowl games, the NCAA controls the championship games of every collegiate sport, including the immensely lucrative men’s basketball tournament. In 2005-2006, the NCAA’s budgeted revenue exceeded $521 million. But part of their mission is making sure the student-athletes who bring in all that money are actually getting their money’s worth, both academically and athletically.

Before the passage of Proposition 48 in 1983, coaches and athletic administrators seemingly had carte blanche to exploit top athletes. The “student-athlete” designation was, and to some degree still is in many cases, a misnomer, as colleges regularly recruited prized athletes who had no real hope of succeeding in the classroom. As long as the programs were winning, it didn’t matter to many athletic departments that the students were not going to class or graduating. Proposition 48 changed the landscape by adopting eligibility requirements and tracking graduation and retention rates for the athletes. Although “Prop 48” has dramatically changed the nature of intercollegiate athletics, compliance problems still persist. At many big-name institutions, little advancement has been made in the graduation rates of Black and low-income student-athletes. Men’s basketball programs like the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels in the 1990s and the University of Cincinnati Bearcats this decade became notorious for recruiting — but rarely graduating — top-flight players, most of them Black. Many schools circumvented Prop 48 guidelines by offering majors like “Turf Management” and “Recreational and Leisure studies.” Courses in some programs are actually taught by assistant coaches. Three years ago, the University of Georgia suspended men’s basketball coach Jim Harrick and fired his son, Jim Harrick Jr., in part because the younger Harrick, then an assistant coach, taught a class to three players. All three of the players received As, even though none ever attended the class. The senior Harrick resigned amidst an NCAA investigation.

“There are a number of major colleges that have historically done nothing more than take in these athletes for the express purpose of excellence in the athletic program, with little regard for what happens to them afterward,” says sportscaster James “JB” Brown, the new host of CBS’s NFL pre-game show, “The NFL Today.” Brown played collegiate basketball at Harvard University and has signed on as a play-by-play announcer for CBS’s college basketball coverage.

To combat the problems that still plagued the league, the NCAA instituted landmark academic reform measures in 2004. The new rules, to be implemented over three years, are aimed at improving academic progress, retention and graduation rates for member institutions. The new system introduced the Academic Progress Rate (APR), a real-time measurement of how student-athletes are faring in the classroom. This year’s minimum APR score was 925 out of 1000. Teams falling below that number face sanctions, including lost scholarships or exclusion from postseason play. The first APR report, published last month, listed 99 teams at 65 colleges that will lose scholarships (see Diverse, March 23).

The new plan was adopted unanimously by all Division I member institutions, including HBCUs such as Prairie View A&M University, which could be penalized eight scholarships because of sub-standard APRs in five sports (baseball, football, men’s basketball, men’s golf and men’s indoor track). The APR tracks retention and eligibility rather than graduation rates, awarding each player four points per academic year — one point per semester for being on scholarship and one point per semester for being academically eligible.

Charles McClelland, athletic director at Prairie View, says the university’s overall graduation rate of 60 percent is the third highest among public institutions in Texas. But the university was penalized for scholarships the administration awarded to some student-athletes. McClelland says the university now has a better understanding of what goes into the APR and has added an additional academic counselor to look specifically at the new guidelines. It is not unusual for students at many HBCUs to leave school and work for a semester before re-enrolling, which led to some of the problems at Prairie View.

“There were a couple of instances where we issued scholarships to student-athletes who didn’t meet the mold,” says McClelland, who has been at Prairie View for five years. “If you’re not going to be eligible and retained in that following year and we know that, we are not going to issue scholarships, even though you are eligible for that semester.”

Prairie View’s athletic budget of $3.2 million must stretch to finance 18 teams and nearly 300 student-athletes. But McClelland will not use lack of money as an excuse for the university’s sub-par APR. Nor will Prairie View fall back on institutional-mission waivers that the NCAA has made available to some colleges and universities, particularly HBCUs (63 teams were granted waivers, but the NCAA would like to see institutions perform as well for student-athletes as they are for the rest of the student body).

“Our goal is not to meet the standard by applying for waivers, but to meet the standard by progressing our student-athletes,” McClelland says. “I won’t point to budgetary restraints for not meeting the APR. … Prairie View historically has been known for producing high graduation rates and retention of athletes … I expect us to be at the minimum next year.”

Another HBCU, Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, was placed on four year’s probation in February, forfeited 11 championship titles, had grants-in-aid reduced in all 15 sports and faced a number of other penalties because of roughly 200 violations, including a “lack of institutional control.” Alvin Hollins Jr., FAMU’s sports information director, says the university’s compliance program was understaffed and underfunded, resulting in a staff that was inexperienced and inadequately trained between 1998-1999 and 2004-2005. In the struggle to compete on a higher athletic level, compliance, sports information and even sports medicine were not funded as well with the university’s $6.5 million budget as they should have been, he says. Hollins says FAMU is responding by “dialing up the intensity on academics,” hiring more staff and implementing an academic advising program specifically for student-athletes.

“In a word, we were dysfunctional,” Hollins says of FAMU, which will also lose nearly 10 scholarships because the university’s baseball, football, men’s basketball and men’s and women’s swimming programs didn’t meet the minimum APR. “We still have a lot of work to do, internally and externally. These problems aren’t beyond being solved. It’s a matter of making it a priority.”

In June 2005, FAMU’s then-interim athletic director E. Newton Jackson fired popular head football coach Billy Joe with 18 months left on his contract and did not renew the contracts of two assistant coaches, reportedly because of NCAA rules violations. At the time, the university also hinted that other firings could come in other athletic programs.

In February, however, the NCAA issued a public infractions report that, in effect, cleared Joe of any wrongdoing and gave him the green light to pursue other head coaching jobs. In a letter dated Jan. 31, 2006, from Gene Marsh, chair of the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions, and sent to Joe through an attorney, the NCAA states: “The committee did not name you in any findings of violations or impose any penalties against you. Your name will not be included in our list of individual record files.”

On the day Joe received the letter, his attorney filed a lawsuit against FAMU for breach of contract. Joe is seeking the remainder of his salary and may pursue damages, according to reports. FAMU hired Nelson Townsend for his second stint as athletic director in December.

Last year, Lincoln University in Missouri, a Division II school, was placed on four years’ probation for a number of violations relating to ineligible student-athletes in football, men’s basketball, women’s cross country, women’s track and field and men’s golf. Other HBCUs that did not meet the minimum APR and are subject to penalties include Alabama A&M University (football), Delaware State University (baseball), Hampton University (football, men’s and women’s basketball), Morgan State University (women’s volleyball) and South Carolina State University (men’s basketball).

According to Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president for membership services, the schools that have the best chance at compliance are those colleges and universities that have and keep the students’ best interests in mind.

“It’s an issue of being clear from the top down in the university about what your expectations are and what your commitments are … and providing the resources necessary to get that done,” he says.

CBS’s Brown says colleges and universities must stay focused on preparing their student-athletes for success in life. He often travels the country speaking to students, and usually reiterates the point that the vast majority of college athletes will never play at the professional level. Taking advantage of the opportunity to earn a college degree is vitally important, he says, and the responsibility lies both with the student-athlete and the administration.

“I don’t have much tolerance — irrespective of it being a major college or an HBCU — for a university where the administration isn’t fully and totally committed to ensuring that student-athletes are making meaningful progress towards graduation, and in a meaningful and relevant major,” Brown says.



© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com