Wednesday, January 26, 2005

the Graduate(s) | by Jay

It didn't seem to generate a lot of discussion at the time, but a couple of weeks ago the NCAA released some new standards for academic performance for athletes at Division 1 schools. Under the new guidelines, college sports teams must stay on track to graduate at least 50 percent of their student-athletes to avoid the risk of losing scholarships for a year, under a plan approved by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors.

The brickbat here seems to be something called a contemporaneous penalty, which means that when one of your players flunks out, leaves, or otherwise fails to graduate, your school may not re-award his/her scholarship a new student-athlete. This restriction lasts for one year. (For a lengthier explanation of the penalty system, take a look here.)

A second component to the new rules involves losing scholarships if your across-the-program grades aren't good enough. A new scoring system will go into place, a 1,000-point scale that measures your overall academic achievement. The Chronicle of Higher Education explained it in an article last Friday:

The 1,000-scale score equates to a percentage: 925 means that a team received 92.5 percent of all possible points.

Each scholarship athlete on a team earns two points per term by returning to college and passing enough classes to remain eligible for sports, according to another complex formula. Athletes who return to college but do not pass enough courses to be eligible earn one point, and those who flunk out altogether earn none.

Take a football team with 80 scholarship athletes at a college with two semesters. Assume, however implausibly, that all the athletes pass their courses for the fall semester. But 10 players decide in February to leave college immediately. Five more do not pass enough courses in the spring to remain eligible, but return to college anyway.

The team can score a maximum of 320 points (two points per athlete per semester). The players who leave cost the team 20 points; those who fail their courses cost five points. So the team has 295 points, or 92.2 percent of 320. Thus, its final score is 922.

Because the score falls below the threshold of 925, the team faces the loss of 10 scholarships for the next year.

But the NCAA decided to cap the number of scholarships teams can lose at 10 percent of the maximum they may award. Football teams are permitted 85 grants, so this team would lose the maximum of 9.

The NCAA estimates that 30 percent of Division I football teams would have lost scholarships, based on 2003-4 data, under the new plan. A quarter of baseball teams and 20 percent of basketball teams also would have been punished.

Now, the NCAA is nothing if not a rule-making body, but as far as I can tell, this is the first time the NCAA has tied actual graduation rates to athletic incentives and penalties. It's quite a bold step, since for the first time it encumbers the school with the responsibility of not just qualifying kids and keeping them in class, but actually sending them off into the world with a diploma when their athletic usefulness has expired.

So, a couple of thoughts on all this.

First of all...50% graduation rate? Well, I'm blown away -- talk about setting the bar high.
Fifty percent. Wow. Except maybe in gambling, or dating (or maybe voter turnout), in what other area of life is 50% anywhere near a successful outcome? Yet, for Division 1 sports, fifty percent is considered an acceptable rate of success.

In fact, it's not just acceptable...for some programs, it's a major improvement. Check out the sub-50% graduation rates of these major college football programs (based on 2003 stats, from an exhaustive analysis by Stanford's

Florida St.49%
Ohio State41%
Georgia Tech39%

(By the way, these numbers can fluctuate wildly from year to year. Texas, because of a dismal performance by the most recent class, saw its four-class grad rate drop from 50% to 38% in a single season.)

So fifty percent, a really rather modest goal, would nonetheless be a triumph for the likes of Oklahoma. It's really almost unbelievable that only a third of the guys on your football team are going to graduate, but there it is. These football factories needed a healthy dose of healing shame, and the new rules are a good step in the right direction.

And yet, you know they're going to find a way around it, somehow. The risks of not graduating your players has just dramatically increased, and your livelihood and identity as a "football school" hangs in the balance, so you've got to make it work. The obvious recourse, it seems to me, is going to be to simply push the kids through, increasing the number of "gut" classes and greasing the wheels of academia to keep the machine humming along. I'm sure it's the cynic in me thinking this way, but looking at the history of recruiting -- an area where violations have been piling up for years, despite any NCAA sanctions -- you have to realize that where there's a will, there's a way.

So will these new rules really have any teeth? And will the end result be simply a devaluing of the diploma itself, turning it into a meaningless piece of puffery worth no more than the paper it's printed on? NCAA czar Myles Brand actually weighed in on this very argument, saying it's an insult to the faculty who create the classes and the academic environment. "We have to ferret out the fraud", says Brand. Yet, short of installing a truly independent, objective NCAA compliance officer at each school, I'm not sure how you can accomplish this.

A few years back there was a five-part series in the Chicago Tribune on the uneasy relationship between higher education and athletics, and while the NCAA landscape has evolved somewhat since
then, the article still gives a glimpse of how big-time programs manage to operate under the umbrella of academia:

One Midwest football coach said as much: "There are no level playing fields in this academic stuff. Michigan is a big-time institution, and they find a way to hide their athletes. It doesn't take a genius to know what's going on. I can show you the transcripts of the kind of kids they're getting into Michigan. They're going through the back door."

"Did I put (marginal students) into sports management? Yeah, I put them there," said Frieder, now the coach at Arizona State. "They're not going to make it at Michigan in the school of business. All my kids on my good teams went through sports management. If you want those kind of kids, you have to have an avenue for them."

But at the same time, yes, it is a place where Michigan houses several of its student-athletes, some of them who are academically marginal. There are suggestions from sports management's own faculty that some Michigan athletes are directed into the program as a way of surviving in a tough academic climate. In its course curriculum, sports management has "remedial" math and study skills classes that faculty members say are in place for marginal student-athletes.
It's a bit of folly to think that by simple decree, the NCAA can somehow invoke the Platonic ideal of "student-athlete" and suddenly transform these football factories into institutions that truly serve the interests of the students, but it's good that they're trying, and it's got to be done.

And there also needs to be a stark realization that in the grand scheme of things, college isn't for everyone. On some level, the NCAA code of rules is like Frankenstein's monster, cobbled together from spare parts and held together by the thinnest of sinews, an unnatural creature always one step away from falling to pieces. Each year, it seems, new regulations are proposed and passed, all in the name of "student-athletes", and this flimsy web of rules constantly strains to hold back what is, at its heart, a robust, irrepressible, revenue-generating machine. There ought to be a way to divert kids from this machinery who otherwise couldn't give two flips about school, and provide a better alternative than trying to fit them into that preconceived mold. (It's been touted before, but maybe a professional minor league for football and hoops would be a viable option.) The schools would move a little closer to their ideal vision of the athlete-as-student, and the NCAA could unclench their cheeks a little bit more.

So how does Notre Dame fit into this picture? Well, we don't really have to worry about the 50% rule -- ND's grad rates for football have always been among the best in the land. And along with a handful other schools -- Duke and Stanford, to name a couple -- we seem to have cracked the code on the student athlete, providing sound academic grad rates along with competitive teams. We do this in a couple of key ways: a higher academic threshold for incoming recruits, and a serious dedication to academic support once at the school.

Unlike Duke, Stanford, and the rest, however, ND is the only school actively engaged in trying to win a national championship in football, and as such, we offer an important and unique perspective for the college landscape.
We're the sole institution of higher learning that also wants (I'll stress wants) to be a real football powerhouse, on par with the Miamis and the Oklahomas of the world, while maintaining a high level of academic excellence. Due mostly to the sheer number of players involved, a football program requires much more diligence and allocation of resources to its academic well-being -- much moreso than many of the typical football schools seem to devote.

Is the whole idea of a student athlete in this most bottom-line of sports a quaint notion of a bygone era? Is it ridiculous to think that ND can compete with Oklahoma and LSU on the field and still graduate 80-plus-percent of its players? And not just in puffy Michigan-style Kinesiology programs, but in fairly rigorous curriculums, and send them off with a diploma that has some heft and value? Is it even possible?

Well, we are certainly trying. In fact, it's part of our mission. As Father Ted once put it...

“Several years ago Sports Illustrated kindly invited me to express some convictions regarding intercollegiate athletics. In a recent (1958) article entitled “Surrender at Notre Dame,” you say that I have found it impossible to live with these convictions at Notre Dame and have reversed myself, or allowed myself to be reversed, albeit reluctantly. If I read the article correctly, and separated the fact from the fiction, your conclusion is derived from the single fact of our having changed football coaches. Here are a few more facts and convictions that may suggest an alternate, although perhaps less colorful, interpretation of that single fact.

“My primary conviction has been, and is, that whatever else a university may be, it must first of all be a place dedicated to excellence. Most of my waking hours are directed to the achievement of that excellence here in the academic order. As long as we, like most American universities, are engaged in intercollegiate athletics, we will strive for excellence of performance in this area too, but never at the expense of the primary order of academic excellence.”

"He (the ND head coach) understands what we stand for and he has our confidence. Despite any syndicated surmises to the contrary, he is not expected to be Rockne, but only himself; he is not to be measured by any nostalgic calculus of wins, losses and national championships but only by the excellence of his coaching and the spirit of his teams."

“A university could make broad and significant changes in academic personnel to achieve greater excellence, and attract only a ripple of attention. But let the same university make a well-considered change in athletics for the same reason, and it sparks the ill-considered charge that it is no longer a first rate academic institution and must henceforth be considered a football factory. It seems to me a little more thought is in order regarding what makes and institution academically first rate…. What the University does athletically, assuming it to be in the proper framework, neither adds to nor subtracts anything from relevant and all-important academic facts.”

“There is no academic virtue in playing mediocre football and no academic vice in winning a game that by all odds one should lose...There has been a surrender at Notre Dame, but it is a surrender to excellence on all fronts, and in this we hope to rise above ourselves with the help of God.“