HBCUs take academic hits from NCAA

I didn't attend a historically black college. But my mother did. For her generation, institutions such as Tuskegee, Langston, Grambling and North Carolina A&T were the primary if not sole option for African-Americans (alas, we were Negroes back then) who wanted to obtain a college degree.

Today, many of my friends, colleagues and relatives are proud alumni of HBCUs, and at least one of the schools is on my son's college wish list.

HBCUs remain committed to nurturing and educating black students in a unique environment that promotes self-esteem and challenges them to strive for excellence.

That is their mission -- their primary if not sole reason for their existence. It's also why they continue to battle the myriad challenges that threaten their survival.

That's why it was particularly troubling to read last week that numerous HBCUs were being sanctioned by the NCAA for poor academic progress.

About now, you might be saying to yourself: Huh? We've got parents going around pimping their kids for hundreds of thousands of dollars, kinfolk taking money from agents, coaches throwing illegal parties for recruits and other coaches lying about players getting tattoos. Why is the NCAA worrying about report cards?

In 2005, the NCAA instituted the Academic Progress Rate, which measures a team's academic performance term by term, essentially assessing how well schools move their athletes toward graduation. At its simplest, the APR tracks each athlete and awards points for remaining academically eligible and staying in school.

The NCAA's bar for "progress," however, isn't very high. When all the calculations are done, a rating of 925, which signifies a 50 percent graduation rate, is considered satisfactory.

Only … not in my house, it isn't.

And I'm sure it wouldn't be satisfactory to the founders of any HBCU, who launched their schools intending that every black kid who wanted a college education could get one.

Not half of them.

That said, too many teams at HBCUs are falling way short of the NCAA's bar for "progress."

Teams can lose up to 10 scholarships if their four-year APR falls below 925, and the schools can receive other penalties (more lost scholarships, or a postseason ban) when teams underperform for longer periods or when a player drops out of school while academically ineligible. You might have read or heard last month that basketball national champion UConn lost two scholarships for poor academic performance. Other high-profile schools such as LSU and even Georgia Tech also have received APR sanctions.

Of the 58 harshest penalties levied last week, half came down on teams representing HBCUs. Yes, half -- although only 24 of the 340 schools measured in the APR report (or just 7 percent) are HBCUs.

And borrowing from the adage that says when America catches a cold, black America gets a huge case of pneumonia, some of the penalties assessed could be devastating to the programs, many of which have produced some of our most celebrated professional athletes.

Among the football programs penalized, Texas Southern, which last year reached the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) championship game, was hit hardest, losing 15 scholarships. Delaware State lost 9; Jackson State 6 and North Carolina A&T 3. Delaware State and NC A&T also were told they must shorten their football practice time.

Coppin State's basketball program was hit with the loss of four scholarships. In addition, Norfolk State, Mississippi Valley State and Southern each lost two basketball scholarships, while Grambling lost one. Coppin State and Norfolk state also were hit with the additional practice sanctions.

It gets even worse: Jackson State and Southern are banned from postseason play in football next season, while the basketball teams at Southern (the alma mater of New Jersey Nets coach Avery Johnson in Baton Rouge, La.) and Grambling will be ineligible for the postseason as well.

Reacting to the sanctions, Southern chancellor Kofi Lomotey issued a statement saying the APR report "sends a clear message that we must and will improve."

Actually, the message is even harsher: Shame on you.

I don't much care whether UConn, LSU or Georgia Tech loses a few scholarships. To those schools and their big-time brethren, it's an irritant. It's part of the cost of doing business, a bruise that can be cured by winning another conference title or beating a longtime rival. Their penalties don't taint the school's image for the long-term. Nor do they dampen the passions of their rabid face-painted fans. Not at all.

Not so with HBCUs.

Every college and university is founded on strong educational principles, but especially given the legacy of the HBCUs, academic achievement should be first and foremost among priorities, well ahead of winning SWAC or MEAC titles. Instead, the iconic founders of HBCUs, such as Mary McLeod Bethune at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, or Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington, are likely raging with anger in their graves because some of the schools aren't meeting the NCAA's mediocre academic standards.

Unfortunately, HBCUs nationwide are under siege on many fronts. Financial shortfalls, deteriorating facilities and lukewarm alumni support are now pains shared by too many historically black colleges and universities.

George Wright is a former professor and administrator at Texas and Duke. He's now president at historically black Prairie View A&M, the second-oldest public university in Texas. So he's seen the other side.

"Every administrator here at Prairie View has two jobs," he told NCAA.org. "That's part of the problem."

Yet another challenge is that HBCUs, while striving to attract the best and brightest, also often open their classrooms to young people who have no other higher-education alternative. Wright says Prairie View must "give some folks a second chance and, in some cases, a first chance to attend college. That mission is important. We're not going to have the same retention rate as Texas. I think the NCAA has got to understand the uniqueness of the HBCU and address that."

My generation has seen some of these institutions close altogether. A few still struggle to keep the lights on and the lawn cut, to attract talented professors and -- perhaps most importantly -- to provide financial aid to thousands of students whose families simply cannot afford college tuition.

Just recently, Southern University New Orleans survived a proposal by Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal to merge the institution with the University of New Orleans.

Relative to these challenges, keeping a few athletes eligible might seem middling and unimportant.

Yet these sanctions -- rather, the realities that led to them -- symbolize that something at the very core of many HBCUs today is ailing.

There were some encouraging nuggets in the APR findings. For one, the NCAA is studying whether its supplementary support fund, which can offer schools with limited resources up to $1 million in grants, is actually achieving its goals of impacting graduation rates and academic performance.

Moreover, Mark Emmert, the still-fresh NCAA president, recognizes the unique legacy of HBCUs and says his organization is committed to working with the schools to ensure these kinds of penalties don't also become part of their legacy.

"You worry about the impact [penalties] can have on any of those conferences …," he said when the sanctions were announced. "[And] we do need to be cognizant of the missions of HBCUs, which isn't the same as all of our institutions. It's asking them to complete their missions."

Still, it's a shame someone has to ask.

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.