APR punishes the have-nots of college sports

Now here is shocking news, ranking right up there with religious strife in the Middle East for sheer unexpectedness:

The NCAA's new Academic Progress Rates benefit the big-time schools and hurt the small timers.

That's the primary conclusion that can be drawn from the report released Wednesday. (There is no truth to the rumor that the letterhead on the report read, "NCAA: Of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.") The report trumpets the fact that less than 2 percent of NCAA sports teams nationwide will be penalized with scholarship reductions for poor academic performance.

That's swell. But look at the list of Division I schools that will be penalized and see if you notice a trend:

Football: Temple, Toledo, Middle Tennessee State, Western Michigan, Buffalo, New Mexico State, Northern Illinois, Hawaii.

See any Rose Bowl contenders in that group?

Basketball: Cal Poly, Centenary, East Carolina, Hampton, Jacksonville, Kent State, New Mexico State, South Carolina State, Texas State, Maryland Eastern Shore, DePaul, Florida A&M, Prairie View, Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Sacramento State.

See any programs that will find this report a distraction on the way to the Final Four?

This is a little like the old 1980s compliance joke, "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it's going to give Cleveland State three more years' probation."

Here, we see that the NCAA is so serious about academic reform, it's going to take scholarships away from the dregs of Division I. Take that, Sac State!

There is exactly one school on this list that is a member of one of the six power conferences in Division I sports. (Paging the academic counselors at DePaul. Do you know where your basketball players are?) Everyone else belongs to a shoestring budget league.

On the football list, the schools are either members of the Mid-American Conference (Western Michigan, Toledo, Buffalo, Northern Illinois and, starting next year, Temple), the Western Athletic Conference (New Mexico State, Hawaii), or the Sun Belt (Middle Tennessee State). Those happen to be the bottom three leagues in the Sagarin Ratings for 2005.

On the basketball side we have schools from the Big West, Mid-Continent, Conference USA, Mid-Eastern Atlantic, Big East, Atlantic Sun, MAC, WAC, Southland, SWAC and Sun Belt. Most of those leagues rank among the bottom half of America according to the current conference RPI, and many rank among the bottom third. The Big East is the only league among the top eight.

If this trend persists, it will only deepen the caste system in college athletics. Hopefully, the NCAA will study this data and make some determinations about the apparent academic disparity between castes.

Here's one wild guess as to a root cause: Money.

After one glance at the athletic operating budgets for the Dumb Two Dozen, I'm seeing red. Red ink. Everywhere. According to 2003-04 figures from the Chronicle of Higher Education, almost all these schools are losing millions of dollars on athletics.

Toledo: $8 million in the hole.

Kent State: $7.9 million.

Western Michigan: $7.2 million

Northern Illinois: $6.2 million.

Texas State: $4.1 million.

New Mexico State: $4 million.

And so forth. There are some among the these two-dozen schools who say they're breaking even or turning a small profit, but you wonder how they balance their books. Is it really possible that Temple took in $17.9 million in revenues in 2003-04, while spending that exact same amount?

Now compare those figures with, say, Tennessee. The Volunteers' operating budget for '03-04 shows $62 million in revenue (more than 20 times what Western Michigan pulled in) and $31 million in expenses.

Do you think it's any coincidence that Tennessee put out a release Wednesday afternoon trumpeting its success in the APR?

Read the release and you'll see that much credit is given to the work done at the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center, which is the athletic department's academic support fiefdom. The building is named for John "Thunder" Thornton, an influential Tennessee booster who helped bankroll the project.

Tennessee's athletic Web site lists 17 individuals who work at or with the Thornton Center -- not including tutors -- all dedicated to the academic advancement of Big Orange athletes. There are five academic counselors devoted to individual sports -- including one whose sole focus is the Volunteers football team. (Except for walk-ons. They report to someone else.)

What the have-nots wouldn't give to have a little Thunder on their side.

So here is the Catch-22 the NCAA presents to its smaller, weaker members: You're competing against schools with 20 times the dollars and manpower that you have -- and if you don't keep up with them academically, we're going to take away scholarships and make it even harder to compete athletically. Go get 'em.

It should be said that this issue cuts both ways. If some of the lesser schools were more realistic about their place in college athletics, they wouldn't be in this predicament.

I'd love to have someone show me the payoff for moving up to Division I-A football at Louisiana-Lafayette ($3.1 million in the red in 2003-04) and Louisiana-Monroe ($2 million in the red). They haven't even made it to the Sun Belt's sole postseason tie-in, the New Orleans Bowl.

If more of these schools knew their true place in the college sports hierarchy, the budget problem might not be so pronounced. And there might be more in the coffers to pay for academic support.

I'm all for rigorous academic standards for college athletic departments, but every NCAA good intention is infamously followed by the curse of unintended consequences. A couple of ripples we need to be aware of in this case:

• Athletic departments will have (even more) incentive to do work for their athletes, guide them to bunny classes or pressure professors to help jocks get by. (And don't even suggest it doesn't happen from coast to coast.) Too many athletes are often given grades in high school and prep school just to get to college, which makes it unrealistic to believe they'll suddenly be able (and willing) to do the work on the college level.

• There is an obvious gap between the academic success and support between the high end and low end of Division I. And taking away scholarships from the little guys only deepens the caste system.

If the NCAA wants to make us believe it really cares about the little guys, it will look into why the APR only targets its have-nots.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.