Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=118185
Story Retrieval Date: 5/24/2013 4:30:01 PM CST
First Year: Public warning letter for poor performance
Second Year: Restrictions on scholarships and practice times
Third Year: Ban from post-season competition
Fourth Year: Restricted membership from Division I athletics for the entire institution
APR -- these three little letters have some Division I coaches shaking in their Nikes.
They stand for Academic Progress Rate, a semester-by-semester measurement of an athletic program’s academic success based on its graduation rate. The scholastic assessment was introduced four years ago in NCAA President Myles Brand’s well-publicized attempt to enforce stricter academic standards.
This year the harshest punishment for underperformance goes into effect. And seven of the 11 Big Ten teams, including the University of Illinois, may have something to sweat about.
Though Brand has said the intention of the APR is to encourage increased graduation, critics say its real effect has been to encourage easier course loads among players – particularly in men’s basketball and football.
Many athletes’ majors have been influenced by eligibility requirements, but now that each player’s grade point average could affect the entire team, even more pressure exists to steer away from challenging classes.
Former Division I football player Dr. Greg Primus said in his playing days “clustering,” a term used to describe athletes’ tendency to pursue notoriously easy majors, was a common practice.
“The main goal is keeping these athletes eligible,” Primus said.
A top receiver for Colorado State University in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Primus was the exception to every rule in college athletics. His zeal on the field was matched only by his focus in the classroom. After graduation, he spent time with the Chicago Bears and the University of Chicago Medical School. He's now a surgeon at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest.
Primus said while his college coaches knew he could handle the academic and athletic rigor, their message wasn’t the same for teammates who lacked a comparable scholastic drive.
“If [athletes] do have a particular interest and they find that the course load is too challenging, they fail classes and they’re struggling to be eligible,” Primus said, “it’s going to be a natural reaction for them to pull out of that and say, ‘You know, what’s most important right now is that I at least get a 2.0. Let me shift my curriculum to Basket-weaving 101.’ And everybody’s happy. At least during those four years.”
But Brand, the lead advocate of NCAA academic reform, said while clustering is a reality, it isn’t inherently negative. He addressed the issue earlier this month in an interview with the Associated Press.
“Clustering may or may not by itself be bad,” said Brand. “For example my expectation is that those who are interested in music, who are music majors, cluster in certain majors too, and those who are interested in education tend to cluster in certain majors.
“But you have to make sure clustering hasn’t risen to the point at which it really is problematic,” Brand said. “And that could happen.”
Student athletes have long been held accountable for their academic highs and lows through eligibility requirements, but under the APR, a team’s progress as a whole can be measured too. And the NCAA isn’t stopping there; the organization is developing “Coaches Career APR Portfolios,” which will measure graduation rates throughout a coach’s school-to-school career.
While a perfect APR is 1000, a score of 925 represents a graduation rate of 60 percent, the minimum required by the NCAA before sanctions can be imposed. As an immediate penalty for falling below 925, teams can lose up to 10 percent of their scholarships for the following year.
Under Brand’s plan, consequences grow graver each year. While repeat-offender teams are already subject to restrictions on practice time, soon they could be banned from post-season competition. If a team experiences four consecutive years of poor academic performance, its NCAA membership could be restricted as well.
This means the entire school will no longer be considered a Division I college or university.
While they’re not below the line yet, it’s something several Big Ten teams, including the University of Illinois football program, have had to consider. Last year, Illini football’s APR was 930, just 5 points above the minimum score.
Athletic Director Ron Guenther said the team’s academic progress has increased since coach Ron Zook took over in 2005.
“We are optimistic it will improve this year,” Guenther said. “Next year's APR score will 'drop off' Coach Zook's first year, which was by far the lowest APR score during his tenure here due to multiple transfers, which are expected during any coaching change.”
In previous reporting periods, transfer students weighed heavily on a team’s APR, but the NCAA has amended its rule so that transfers in good academic standing will not count negatively against a team’s graduation rate.
The next round of APR scores, to be released May 6, will represent four-year averages for each team. But regardless of the team’s academic rating, Primus said the real focus should be on the player. The former athlete works as a mentor with local high school and college athletes, and tries to instill a message he learned well through his NCAA and NFL careers: you’ve got to have a backup plan.
“You have to find something else, something that uses your brain, something intangible that you love just as well,” Primus said. “You have to find that balance.”
“You’re always a play away from your last play in sports.”