Late last week, the NCAA’s board of directors announced significant changes to their ongoing (futile?) effort to enforce the “student” half of “student-athlete.” Teams whose players fail to meet certain minimum standards (including an academic progress rate, or APR, of 930) will be ineligible for postseason play.
ESPN has already done a fairly thorough job of explaining why this move is about public relations rather than the welfare of schools or athletes. In men’s basketball in particular, though, there’s an even bigger problem with the new approach.
The key issue is that APR penalizes schools for having players who leave without graduating, including those who turn pro in their respective sports. As men’s basketball has the strongest incentive structure for its players to leave early, it’s the sport for which APR is simultaneously the most relevant and the worst fit.
In theory, APR is intended to reward schools for graduating athletes and, implicitly, to punish coaches like Kentucky’s John Calipari who rely predominantly on one-and-done future NBA talent. In practice, though, trying to force such a risk/reward balance onto college basketball would benefit no one.
The players, of course, have no more incentive to stay in school than they did before. Even if their program will ultimately be penalized, they’ll be long gone by the time any sanctions hit.
The coaches, the real targets of the new rules in many ways, would similarly keep doing just what they’ve been doing. Those who aren’t leaning heavily on short-term recruits (the ones the system is meant to reward) would naturally continue as they have been, but whether they’d have a more level playing field is questionable at best.
After all, the John Walls and Kyrie Irvings of the world have to go somewhere. By increasing the risk associated with recruiting them, all the NCAA is doing is making it even less likely that they’ll be recruited by the very teams that could use their talent to even out the competitive balance of the sport.
The alternative (which many educational purists would applaud) is for those players who have no interest in a college education not to go to college. That prospect, though, means lower quality of play for the fans and less revenue for the schools and the NCAA, hardly a likely (or necessarily even a desirable) decision for the NCAA to make.
The likely result of the new rules is for several deserving teams each year to be left out of the NCAA tournament primarily because of the actions of players who aren’t there anymore. That hardly seems like the lesson the NCAA ought to be teaching.