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Dave Hickman: Playing the APR game

MORGANTOWN — The NCAA last week published the results of its annual exercise in academic oversight. It’s called the Academic Progress Rate and it’s the organization’s effort to promote the notion that student-athletes should emphasize the student part as much as the athlete.

That’s true, of course, and perhaps the way the NCAA has chosen to monitor the academic progress of its student-athletes — and thus foster that noble notion — is the best it can do. But every year when I see the results, they tend to reinforce the notion that rather than promoting education the APR is merely a game that schools must learn to play.

This year the results again would seem to bear that out. High-profile schools seldom face sanctions of any kind because they’ve learned to play the game. The schools that are penalized are the smaller ones who apparently have not learned or otherwise cannot battle the system.

For example, 36 teams face postseason bans next year because they failed to meet higher APR standards that went into effect this year. None are from power conferences.

A total of 56 teams face a reduction in practice time because of low scores. Two are from power conferences, including Oklahoma State’s loss of two hours of football practice time next season.

“We've had a number of situations where, because of weak performance in the classroom, a school is being banned from postseason play,’’ NCAA president Mark Emmert said on the day this year’s numbers were released. “Student-athletes who are struggling in the classroom need to be more attentive to what's going on there instead of worrying about the postseason. Similarly, programs who have not been supporting the academic success of their student-athletes need to be more attentive to that. That was the intention of the membership putting this rule in place. It's having, I think, its intended impact.’’

Really? If the rich and powerful schools are not being penalized at all for academic transgressions — and smaller, poorer ones are — is the APR having its intended impact? Sure, it’s possible that the bigger schools are doing a better job than the smaller schools with academics, but doesn’t the clear divide suggest that perhaps the bigger ones are just better at playing the game?

Just as a reminder, the basics of the APR are these: Every athlete in every sport earns a point for remaining eligible and in school. That means two points (one for each semester) for being there and two more for being eligible. Those who fail to do one or the other fail to earn certain of those points. In other words, being ineligible is the loss of a point, dropping out is a loss of a point and then there’s the dreaded 0 for 2 — dropping out while ineligible.

Anyway, each sport’s athletes are graded and, after dividing this and multiplying that, a perfect score is 1,000. The NCAA then sets minimum standards and if a sport at a school fails to reach it, it is penalized through a variety of means including (but not limited to) reduced practice time, scholarship reductions and postseason bans.

In the beginning, a lot of power conference schools faced significant penalties. Many served them through scholarship reductions and the like, although many teams never had to serve them because in the early days the system was being tweaked and waivers were fairly common.

In recent years, though, if a power conference school is penalized at all it is because it just wasn’t paying attention or because something extraordinary happened. Sometimes schools can’t avoid the extraordinary because, college kids being college kids, they don’t always do what’s right. If a kid doesn’t want to go to class and then wants to drop out, sometimes there’s nothing a school can do.

But there are also ways to make it harder for them not to do it right. Take Eron Harris, for example.

It’s not that Harris would have stopped going to class or just dropped out when he decided West Virginia basketball was no longer for him, but WVU makes sure anyway. Ever wonder why Bob Huggins said nearly two months ago that Harris would be given the release from his scholarship but it was early May when Harris finally was released? Well, because he wasn’t let go until the end of the semester. Chances are Harris would have stayed in school and remained eligible anyway, but by not releasing him until the end of the semester it made sure he did.

It’s part of playing the game.

Does that mean the APR is a bad thing, though? No. I’ve said this before, but the fact is if schools are keeping student-athletes eligible and on a better track toward graduation, it’s a good thing, even if the primary intent is to avoid APR sanctions. The bottom line is it’s still a benefit to the student-athlete, no matter the reasoning behind it.

I just have a hard time accepting Emmert’s contention that the APR and its penalties are having the intended impact. Unless, of course, learning to play the APR game is the intent.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1


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