THE NCAA’S plan to ban teams from postseason play next season if their graduation rates are well under 50 percent aims to place accountability for student performance in the right place - with the coaches and administrators who too often allow practice to interfere with homework or look the other way when a star player is flunking out. It’s a student-friendly provision, seeking to ensure that the 99 percent of college athletes who don’t go on to substantial pro careers at least have a college degree to fall back on.
But that plan is already under assault from one of the NCAA’s worst offenders. Recent graduation rates for the University of Connecticut, the defending national basketball champion, are so low they are unlikely to improve fast enough for the team to qualify for 2013’s postseason tournament. So UConn is asking the NCAA Rules Committee to amend its standards to judge teams more by current academic performance and less by their longer-term track record, as does the newly enacted provision - which assesses the four most recent recruiting classes to finish their collegiate careers. The NCAA should stick to its guns, and not amend its rules.
According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Associated Press, UConn President Susan Herbst is concerned that, with almost all current players on track for graduation, denying the team a chance to play for the national title because their predecessors didn’t graduate would be “a fundamental injustice.’’
It’s fair to argue that justice should be meted out against offenders, not bystanders. But that ignores the fact that teamwork is an essential part of college sports: Many star players don’t get a chance to play for the title because their teammates drop out, don’t execute on the court, or come up short in other ways. And failing to attend to required schoolwork is most definitely a way of falling short. The fact that some of these teammates were in different class years doesn’t alter the equation.
While the NCAA denied UConn’s request for an outright waiver, its rules committee is scheduled to meet this morning to consider amending the provision to allow teams to qualify based on the graduation rates of their two most recent classes, a change that would, rather conveniently, help big-time teams like UConn to make up for past performance in a hurry. (The recently enacted rules look back at four consecutive classes of freshmen receiving athletic scholarships and take account of whether they graduated within six years. By this standard, UConn is at only 25 percent, a truly sad number.)
But the reasons to reject any rule change outweigh those in its favor. The two-year assessment won’t solve the “fundamental unfairness’’ identified by Herbst, because today’s players would still have their eligibility depend on graduation rates of teammates from earlier years. Moreover, by judging teams on such recent data, incoming recruits won’t have the advance warning of knowing which programs have poor graduation rates and are thus in jeopardy of being banned from postseason play; the understanding that poor graduation rates might deter star freshman from enlisting is a major incentive for coaches to toe the academic line.
In addition, assessing a program’s academic viability over a longer time frame provides a more accurate measure, thereby removing the possibility that a couple of dropouts could cause a wild swing in the numbers.
UConn has dug its own hole, and it has to dig its way out. The NCAA rules committee shouldn’t give the Huskies any extra help.