When "March Madness" - the premier tournament of men's college basketball - kicks off next week, it may mark a swan song for some of the 65 invited teams.
The problem isn't their ball-handling or defense. It's the abysmal graduation rates of team members that has the National Collegiate Athletic Association finally cracking down. If their academic performance doesn't improve by the end of this academic year, schools could face the loss of scholarships, recruiting limitations, and eventually, ineligibility for postseason play.
"The messages are clear," says NCAA president Myles Brand. "Recruit student athletes who are capable of doing college-level work, help them meet the standards for progress toward a degree, and work with them and keep them enrolled so that the opportunity for a quality education becomes a reality."
While controversy has swirled around the academic record of several NCAA sports for years, men's basketball is under particular scrutiny. For example: Four of the top 25 squads heading into this year's tournament - the universities of Kentucky, Louisville, Washington, and Connecticut - fail to meet the NCAA's new minimum standards. Another seven teams in the top 25 also fall below the minimum, but since they were within the margin of error, the NCAA simply flagged them when it announced its results last week (see chart).
Measured by a complicated formula called the Academic Progress Rate (APR), the new standard in essence calls for schools to graduate roughly half the members of any given team, be it men's football or women's track.
Despite an upswing in overall academic performance among athletes in the 1990s, only 44 percent of basketball players who started school in 1997 had graduated by 2003, according to the NCAA's latest report on graduation rates, issued last fall. Contrast that with the 62 percent of all student athletes and 60 percent of the general student body who graduated in that time. In all, nearly 1 in 5 men's Division I basketball teams fall below the APR minimum.
"It's a situation that right now we all feel isn't acceptable," says Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chairman of the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance. "Part of it is a culture that says that success on the field is more valuable than success in the classroom, and part of it is just our inability to reach these players as students."
His committee plans to draft more severe penalties aimed at universities he calls "the lowest of the low" later this year.
The changes - part of a larger reform package introduced by the NCAA board of directors in 2002 - are not universally embraced by coaches or outside critics. But they come as welcome news to Leon Symanski, a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a member of the Rebels' 1987 Final Four team. Mr. Symanski graduated with a degree in business management and went on to finish law school, but he says he saw teammates run into trouble when they couldn't keep up academically.
"A lot of the guys came from diverse backgrounds and didn't really 'get' what they needed to do academically," he says. "Coach [Jerry] Tarkanian recruited a lot of different guys to fill a lot of different roles, and the reasons didn't always take academics into account."
"I owe a lot to UNLV," he adds. "But I think penalties are a good idea, because it's really not fair to the athletes to recruit them into this environment and then not offer them any support once they get there."
The NCAA's recent action is "a great step," says Thomas Hearn Jr., president of Wake Forest University and chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, the group that first called for an overhaul of the college sports system in 1991. "Our hope is that this completes the transition from the time when everything in college athletics had to do with remaining eligible, and nothing to do with degrees.... While we realize that it will take some time to get these new regulations implemented, we're very pleased, and we think that it will change behaviors."
Opponents of the league's approach paint a different picture. The NCAA's reforms are little more than window dressing covering up systemic problems that go all the way to the top, charges Linda Bensel-Meyers, director of The Drake Group. The watchdog organization has been pushing for an increased academic presence in college sports. But in its 2002 changes, she points out, the NCAA actually removed a requirement that new recruits achieve a particular standardized test score.
"By lowering the admissions standards while raising the academic requirements for students - these changes are just going to serve as incentive to weaken the academic system at many universities," she says. "It will really put the institutions against a brick wall, forcing them to choose between being in the business of college sports or defending their academic principles."
But for Greg Anthony, an 11-year NBA veteran who left UNLV before graduation in 1991 only to return after retirement to complete his B.A., there's more to it than requirements. Schools should also focus on the quality of the education they offer student athletes, rather than simply handing them general-studies diplomas.
"There's been a lot of focus on graduation rates," he says, "but just because you have a degree doesn't mean you'll be able to use it. I'd rather see players getting degrees that will be of real benefit to them."