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Duncan praises NCAA’s academic progress

By Brian Hendrickson

After delivering sharp criticism of the NCAA in recent years, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Wednesday instead encouraged college leaders to continue down their current path during his NCAA Convention keynote speech.

Citing recent academic policy changes and praising the quick actions taken during last summer’s Presidential Retreat, Duncan endorsed the NCAA’s attempts to strike a better balance between athletics and education.

“I absolutely applaud reforms you have approved in recent months and the direction of the reforms you are currently considering,” Duncan told a packed ballroom at the Indiana Convention Center. “Keep going, and please resist the temptation to tinker or temper your core principles.”

After his speech, Duncan said he was particularly encouraged by the outcome of the presidential retreat and that group’s united agreement that the status quo of college athletics could not be maintained. Those meetings gave birth to an increase in the Academic Progress Rate scores to qualify for postseason basketball competition – a policy that was the focus of an editorial Duncan wrote in the Washington Post last March.

Duncan lobbied in that editorial for the NCAA to set a minimum APR requirement that would equate to having half of a program’s players on track to graduate. NCAA presidents stepped up to that challenge at the retreat by establishing a new APR requirement of 930.

 “I was very impressed and very encouraged by what had happened (at the presidential retreat), and what seemed to be the unanimity of the group that this was important,” Duncan said. “In recent times I’ve seen great leadership by the university presidents in particular. If they step up and say, ‘This is tainting us. This is not what we want’ … I think they can get to a better place.”

But Duncan also cautioned NCAA leaders against what he called “the 2012 narrative,” a storyline that suggests that collegiate athletics enterprises are primarily focused on building brand value and establishing new revenue streams. He said that narrative casts an impression that coaches and players live in an insular world in which they are allowed to behave in manners that would be found unacceptable in other areas of higher education and in general society.

To combat that narrative, Duncan encouraged dialogue among NCAA leaders in several areas:

  • He encouraged the BCS conferences to set aside a meaningful share of bowl revenues to support education initiatives. He pointed to the NCAA’s Degree- Completion Award program, which provides financial assistance to former student-athletes looking to finish their degrees, as a model for using increasing revenue streams to support education.
  • He lobbied for the implementation of an academic redshirt year for ineligible student athletes (which was voted down Wednesday afternoon). Duncan said students shouldn’t be participating in varsity athletics until they are academically ready.
  • Duncan also supported Division I proposals to provide some student-athletes an expense allowance of up to $2,000 and a second proposal to provide multi-year scholarships. Each will be discussed during Saturday’s Division I Board of Directors meeting. Duncan called those proposals “steps in the right direction to protect student-athletes and put their interests first.”

Duncan acknowledged that those issues will be politically challenging, but he said solving college athletics’ troubles should be achievable.

“Some things are intellectually extraordinarily complicated,” Duncan said. “This is hard. It’s hard politically. It takes some courage. But I think it’s less an intellectual challenge than a challenge of leadership.”