Commentary

No muscle behind latest NCAA policy

Until coaches are held accountable for graduation rates, progress will be limited

Originally Published: August 6, 2010
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

A good friend of mine has a pair of guard dogs that bark as soon as you take a step toward her house.

They bark even louder when you ring the doorbell. And when the doors open and she lets you in, they bark even more. Sometimes, they toss in a couple of growls for good measure. But eventually, these two protectors of the house -- combined, they weigh about four pounds -- tire out, go to their respective corners and curl up for a snooze.

This, essentially, is what the NCAA's latest attempt to prioritize education is: all bark and, even by its own admission, no bite.

This week the organization assigned academic ratings to coaches in basketball, football, baseball and women's indoor and outdoor track in an attempt to better illustrate their success rate in graduating the athletes they bring to campus. The Academic Progress Rates (APR), as they are called, have followed the academic achievement of coaches for the past six years. They're available for everyone to see online.

But get this: There are no penalties for coaches with poor records. In fact, the NCAA hasn't even decided if the score will follow the coach if he or she leaves, or if the score will stay with the institution.

[+] Enlargetextbooks
Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesThe NCAA still hasn't found an effective way to make sure its athletes are opening these things often enough.

Kevin Lennon, the NCAA vice president who oversees the APR initiative, said he hopes the ratings will become a source of bragging rights for coaches with high scores.

Are you kidding me?

Which coach is under fire for a lack of Academic All-Americans?

I have yet to see a group of college coaches with the latest copy of The Chronicle of Higher Education tucked under their arms.

I have yet to see or hear a sports analyst talk about the grades or SAT or ACT scores of a coach's incoming recruiting class. I have yet to see a template in which such information impacts a recruiting class ranking.

We already know the commitment coaches make to academics. It's called a "graduation rate," and each program's data have been available to the public for years. If the NCAA wanted to get serious about making academics the top priority for its athletes, it would stop wasting resources reinventing the wheel and start making the sacrifices necessary to re-prioritize focus. It would put an end to mid-week or late-night games, for example. Those things might squeeze more broadcasting dollars out of the networks, but they inevitably force students to miss class and/or study time.

Or it would ban coaches who obviously are not overly concerned with the overall mission of the institution or who otherwise operate outside the NCAA's rules. Kentucky coach John Calipari, for one, has left two universities -- Massachusetts and Memphis -- to face sanctions for NCAA rules violations, yet is allowed to keep coaching, unscathed. Or West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who in 16 years at Cincinnati graduated 28 percent of his players. Both Calipari and Huggins received acceptable scores in the latest ratings, but neither has ever been held accountable for his past performances. The institutions are punished for poor academics and violations, but the NCAA needs to do a better job of holding coaches responsible. Make it so they are barred from postseason coaching or tie their compensation to their APR scores.

The NCAA website states the organization was "founded in 1906 to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitive athletics practices of the time." Well, I ask you, is there anything more "exploitive" than someone such as Maryland's Gary Williams recruiting black players for his basketball team without a single one of them graduating from 1999 to 2002? Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, is right when he insists the NCAA must do a better job on behalf of the kids it was designed to protect.

One in five teams in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament had a graduation rate of 40 percent or less. I mean, seriously, exactly where in the sand has the NCAA drawn the line? And without punishment, how does this new system draw it? If you thought James Brooks -- the illiterate NFL running back who made it through four years at Auburn -- was an anomaly, then surely you were educated by last year's news about the shenanigans at Florida State. And if you thought FSU was a one-off, well, then you're just na´ve.

As far as I'm concerned, the APR isn't a significant step toward academic reform. It's my friend's lap dogs barking at the door. If the NCAA is not going to punish its coaches for poor APR scores, then where's the incentive for improving them? It can't be something as innocuous as bragging rights. If a coach truly values academics over athletics, he or she doesn't need a toothless evaluation system for motivation to check up on the players in the classroom. And if winning is all that matters to a coach or boosters or an alumni association, then how much stock can the APR truly hold behind closed doors?

Sure, there are other factors involved in a student-athlete graduating. But there are other factors involved in a student-athlete performing well on the field or court, too, and it isn't often you hear professors getting credit for that during telecasts. If the NCAA is serious about academics, it will put some bite into the APR. Because as of now, all it does is bark, and bark, and bark, and …

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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