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NCAA Colloquium broadens reform perspective

By Gary Brown

With academics in all three divisions forming the backbone of the 2012 NCAA Convention, visitors to the fifth annual Scholarly Colloquium on College Sports are getting a primer on how policy has affected student-athletes in the classroom over time.

Tuesday’s opening session featured two keynote presentations – one from Oregon State professor and associate dean Michael Oriard, who tracked the history of reform (academic and otherwise). His presentation teed up the second keynote from NCAA researchers Todd Petr and Tom Paskus to demonstrate how rules changes over the past 20 years have shaped the academic landscape of intercollegiate athletics.

Wednesday 
Colloquium schedule

10-11:30 a.m. keynote presentation

  • Walt Harrison, president of the University of Hartford
  • Reactor No. 1: Camille O’Bryant, professor of kinesiology at California Polytechnic State University
  • Reactor No. 2: Bill Morgan, professor of occupational science at the University of Southern California
  • Moderator: Malcolm Moran, professor of sports journalism at Pennsylvania State University

1:45-3:30 p.m. keynote presentation

Panel discussion on academic reform (“Institutional Experience with Academic Reform”)

  • Sidney McPhee, president of Middle Tennessee State University
  • Carol Cartwright, president emeritus at Kent State University and Bowling Green State University
  • Harvey Perlman, chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln
  • Kevin Anderson, director of athletics at the University of Maryland, College Park
  • Mike Alden, director of athletics at the University of Missouri, Columbia
  • Moderator: Jack Evans, professor of business emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Wednesday’s keynotes – presentations from University of Hartford President Walt Harrison and a panel of presidents and ADs – tackle the “what’s next” for Division I’s ongoing efforts to increase student-athlete academic performance.

Oriard, a 1970 Notre Dame graduate and former NFL player known for his published books “Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport” and “Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era,” pointed to the 1950s and 1970s as turning points in how NCAA schools prioritized academics.

Oriard pointed out that delegates at the 1952 NCAA Convention approved a 12-point code in which half the points either directly or indirectly addressed academics – a stark contrast to previous reform efforts that focused almost exclusively on amateurism and competitive equity.

By the 1972 and 1973 Conventions, though, Oriard noted that the NCAA “fundamentally redefined student-athletes as athlete-students” by simplifying eligibility standards,  making freshmen eligible in football and basketball, and replacing four-year scholarships with one-year renewable grants.

“These changes opened up college athletics to anyone with a high-school diploma, made him eligible as a freshman and made renewal of the scholarship dependent on satisfying the coach,” Oriard said. “And they did this at the moment when full racial integration was finally achieved, creating a huge pool of talented athletes with, in too many cases, inadequate educational backgrounds … Those changes put the NCAA on a collision course with academic scandal and created Ground Zero for the world of continuous academic reform in which we are still living.”

While graduation rates weren’t officially compiled at the time, Oriard cited a couple of studies showing that far fewer NFL players in the early 1980s graduated compared to their predecessors from decades earlier. Another study from Tulane showed lower SAT scores for incoming student-athletes after the NCAA changes on the 1960s and ’70s.

Oriard said the NCAA made several efforts to restore order (driven, as he put it, “by a need for scandal-avoidance”), first with Proposition 48 (which required a score of 700 on the SAT, plus a 2.0 GPA in 11 core high school courses for initial eligibility) and then with Prop 42 (which denied athletics aid to partial qualifiers).

Those changes also heightened a demand for research on the effects of whatever reform was being imposed. In their presentation, Petr and Paskus focused particularly on the post-1980 era of research at the NCAA, specifically on development of a sliding scale of eligibility standards that honors the finding that high school grades are better predictors of academic success in college than standardized test scores.

Though it was controversial when the NCAA eliminated the single cut-score on standardized tests in the sliding scale, it has proved to be statistically sound, Petr said. It  is verified by a student-athlete cohort otherwise ineligible (many of which are ethnic minorities) that has gone on to show a higher proportion of graduates and lower proportion of academic failures than the group with higher test scores but lower GPAs.

Petr and Paskus also talked about more current academic-reform efforts, including development of the Academic Progress Rate, that have increased student-athlete graduation rates.

They also noted the current shift underway to change from a “laser-like” focus on freshman eligibility to a broader perspective on academic success in college.

“While high school academic characteristics are fairly good predictors of freshman performance, they are not nearly as good at predicting graduation from college,” Petr said. “The models using grades and tests to predict college graduation generally explain about 20 percent of the variance in the system. This means that 80 percent of what matters in the complex process of getting students through college is not explained by high school academic preparation.”

Realizing that the NCAA cannot affect what happens to student-athletes before they enroll at member institutions, Petr said the Association’s research efforts have begun to look more closely at what happens to student-athletes while they are on NCAA campuses.

According to Oriard, though, before that can be effective, two primary concerns must be addressed. One is “how the concurrent pursuit of victories and revenues creates enormous pressure to get the best players and keep them eligible, which continuously undermines efforts to make their education a true priority.” The other is “whether the education possible for college athletes today benefits them in the long term as college sports seem to have benefited those from my generation and earlier.”

To the first concern, Oriard believes the NCAA’s future reform efforts are seriously constrained by needing to write rules governing all sports (rather than just football and men’s basketball) and by being unable to impose fiscal restraint.

“Reform in the NCAA today, whether academic or fiscal or directed toward athletes’ rights (such as the $2,000 stipends approved this summer), is essentially scandal-avoidance, lawsuit-avoidance or Congressional-intrusion avoidance,” he said.

He also noted that the financial pressures and incentives at the highest level could reshape the Association, as conference realignments have indicated. He also pointed to the miscellaneous athletics expense issue as potentially driving an irreparable wedge among the Division I membership.

“Imagine not haves and have-nots but utterly separate college athletics universes,” Oriard said. “And in that environment, what’s possible for academic reform becomes unmoored from the current structure.”

In closing, Oriard said he could not imagine institutions choosing “radical de-emphasis” on college sports as an option. Nor does he see other constituents, such as the public or media, even suggesting it.

To that, he proposed a “system restore,” in which college leaders somehow return athletics to a simpler, perhaps even purer, state of affairs.

“I don’t think college sports ever had a ‘Golden Age,’ ” Oriard said. “But there was a time before we became as money-driven as we are today.”