On Thursday, NCAA president Mark Emmert and his delegation of retreating presidents went ahead and shocked the world.
It's not the new rule itself, which will require teams to carry an Academic Progress Rating of 930 to qualify for the NCAA tournament, that's so shocking. (Though it is, kind of; more on that in a second.) No, it's the fact that the NCAA emerged with any rule at all. It was fair to assume Emmert's presidential retreat would be more akin to the Aspen Ideas Festival -- hey, this could work, let's think about it some more -- than a hard-boiled legislative session. Instead, Emmert and his presidents emerged not with soft ideas but with with urgent, needed changes. Given the way the NCAA typically works, that progress alone is impressive.
But it's the new APR rule that has garnered most of the discussion, and rightfully so. As Diamond wrote yesterday, the NCAA stopped being polite and started getting real. If you don't keep your players in good academic standing, you don't qualify for the NCAA tournament, and you and your conference lose out on the money that comes with it. This is admirable stuff. Lest we forget, the NCAA happens to make all of its money -- billions of dollars over the next decade-plus -- from the TV rights to the NCAA tournament. The new APR rule, which won't likely go into effect for another three to five years, is almost certain to keep a few high-profile, high-interest programs out of the sport's biggest competition. That won't be good for anyone. But it proves, more so than ever before, how genuinely serious the NCAA is about its academic mission. There's something to be said for that.
That said, the APR itself is controversial. Coaches happen to hate it, because it penalizes their program for things often outside their control. Coaches can't force their NBA prospects to finish their spring classes before they leave for the draft; they can't always ensure a player who transfers does so in good academic standing. Both situations contribute to APR dings, and both situations have been the focus of coaches' complaints about the rule in recent seasons.
No surprise, then, that the reaction to the new APR rule has been divided, even within individual analysis. Most believe the rule is well-intentioned, but fear that coaches will begin to game the APR in the same way as the RPI. Many have noted that the rule may be unfair to small schools with limited budgets, the kind of places where academic support staff is a luxury rather than a necessity. The Daily's Dan Wolken was quick to point out the inherent flaws in the APR itself, arguing that the figure is a convenient way to force coaches to "play off reputation." Friday, ESPN's Jay Bilas argued that the change does more for the NCAA's reputation than the education of athletes. At least one writer, The Sporting News's Mike DeCourcy, believes the current APR rule -- which penalizes schools with scholarship losses before moving on to more punitive measures like NCAA tourney bans -- is just fine the way it is.
Frankly, it's hard to disagree with any of that.
Yes, the APR is flawed. Of course it is. Yes, the rule is unfair to small schools and historically black universities, as if those schools needed any further inequities to conquer in their attempts to forge some measure of basketball. Yes, the current rule does include these sorts of penalties, albeit in far less harsh ways. And yes, with so much on the line, coaches are far more likely to game their teams' Academic Progress Rates to prevent NCAA tournament absences. The risk is now worth the reward.
But here's the thing: Is there a better alternative? Has anyone developed a better metric than APR to measure a school's dedication to its athletes' educations? Which was is better? The APR's flaws, misguided though they may be, are ultimately noble in spirit. The NCAA expects its member institutions' student athletes to not walk out on their academic responsibilities before leaving for the NBA draft. They expect that if a player transfers, he will be able to pick up his studies without issue at the next school he attends. It's not always fair to punish coaches for these incidents -- sometimes, it's just out of the coach's control -- but it's also not unreasonable to expect coaches to be able to instill this attitude in one's players. If you play for me, you keep your grades up. If you leave for the draft, you finish the classes you started. You have a responsibility to yourself and to your teammates and to me. You don't just walk out.
Whether a player is bound for the NBA draft lottery or not, is that really such a bad thing?
So coaches will game the RPI. And how, exactly? Academic fraud, maybe. That's certainly not a desired option. But the NCAA has penalties for academic fraud, and it's up to the NCAA to police it. Failing outright fraud, coaches will have to do some combination of the following:
Give their smartest walk-ons basketball scholarships so they can count toward the APR figure.
Invest more time, energy and resources into academic support staff.
Carefully avoid APR hits wherever possible.
There will be some gamesmanship, but can you really trick your way into a consistently solid four-year APR score? If coaches even pretend to place a greater reliance on academics within college basketball -- if players even have to feign a greater interest in their grades -- well, isn't that a net gain? Isn't greater exposure to academia, however cursory it may be, a benefit in and of itself?
The APR could use a few tweaks before this rule goes into place. There's no doubt about that. But the announcement Thursday didn't just show that the NCAA understood its urgent public relations problem. It also showcased an organization willing to take drastic steps to further its academic mission, and possibly hurt its only revenue stream in doing so. Minor quibbles are to be expected. But on the fundamental merits, this is a major step forward.