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Mark Bennett Opinion

March 20, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Commission calls for academic success to be tied to NCAA Tournament participation

Follow the money.

That advice from Watergate informant “Deep Throat” led Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward to the truth that uncovered corruption in the nation’s highest public office. The concept applies to situations beyond the Oval Office, though. The commitment of a significant amount of money reveals the motivation (and the identity) of the spender.

Its basis is biblical — “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If someone wants to know what is most important to another person, business or entity, find out where they spend most of their money.

Just as March Madness, circa 2011, began last week, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics released its call to make colleges more accountable for the academic success of their men’s basketball teams, if those schools want to participate in the lucrative NCAA Tournament. Technically, the recommendation by the commission — a nonprofit, college sports reform group founded by two newspaper owners, John S. and James L. (not Bobby) Knight — isn’t new. For the past decade, the commission has advocated for a benchmark 50-percent graduation rate for eligibility in the NCAA Tournament.

This time, though, the commission goes a step farther. Based on its report of last June, “Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values and the Future of College Sports,” it recommends the portion of funds currently rewarded to colleges whose teams win NCAA Tournament games be reduced by half, and that the other half of the money be used to reward schools that meet the stiffer graduation-rate benchmark.

Right now, the only real punishment for a low graduation rate is embarrassment.

In 2004, the NCAA adopted a loose baseline for NCAA Tournament participation, based on each university’s “academic progress rate” or APR. An APR of 900 is a statistical prediction that 40 percent of a school’s men’s basketball players will graduate. A 925 APR predicts a 50-percent rate, and so on. Currently, the NCAA bans teams from its postseason tourney if the program falls below a 900 APR, but only after several consecutive seasons of low academic scores. Only two universities — unheralded Centenary and Portland State — have been locked out of a tournament since that 2004 guideline was set.

If the Knight Commission’s 925 (or 50-percent graduation projection) were applied to this year’s field of 68 teams, 10 schools wouldn’t be eligible for this year’s Big Dance. That list includes Alabama State, Kansas State, Morehead State, Purdue, San Diego State, UAB, Cal-Santa Barbara, USC and Texas-San Antonio. So, how costly would a lockout be for one of those 10?

Under the NCAA revenue distribution system, each game a team plays in the 2011 tournament yields $1.4 million for their school’s conference. During the past five NCAA Tournaments, the NCAA has distributed a combined $409 million under that formula for rewarding tournament performances. Of that $409 million issued to the conferences, 44 percent of it — or $178 million — was earned by teams with APRs under 925 (those on track to graduate less than 50 percent of their players). (In a USA Today report last week, the NCAA insisted that only 20 percent of its revenues sent to conferences was earned by low academic performing teams.)

The top earner, according to the Knight Commission’s figures, the Southeastern Conference, got 73.7 percent of its $40.6 million NCAA Tournament revenue from teams with sub-925 APRs. For Conference USA, 82.5 percent was generated by teams with less than a 925 APR. Other low-performers included the Big Sky (94.4 percent), the Western Athletic (89.3), the Mid-Eastern Athletic (85.9) and the Southwestern Athletic (80.9). Of the top 11 earning conferences, only the Missouri Valley (which includes Indiana State) received none of its revenues from a member school with a sub-925 APR. All $13.5 million of the MVC’s NCAA Tournament dividends came from teams projected to graduate at least 50 percent of their players.

“Our institutions have done a fine job of improving the APR and graduation rates of men’s basketball student-athletes, while at the same time competing respectably at the highest level in the NCAA Tournament, when given the chance,” MVC Commissioner Doug Elgin told the Tribune-Star on Friday. Elgin said the NCAA has made “significant progress” in improving graduation rates in recent years.

As for the Knight Commission report, the findings aren’t surprising, Elgin said, adding, “I don’t know how realistic the recommendations are, though the intentions are clearly noble.”

That assessment by Elgin, quite pragmatic, is accurate; the thought of pulling $204.5 million of that five-year total of $409 million in NCAA Tournament revenue and diverting it to universities meeting stiffer graduation benchmarks sounds noble and, perhaps, unrealistic. Likewise, coaches — such as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim — pointed out that just two or three players “who do the wrong thing” academically could penalize their school’s program, even if the rest were A students, according to last week’s USA Today story.

Then again, just two or three blue-chip recruits make the difference between an NCAA Tournament qualifier and a Final Four-caliber squad.

A high-profile critic of the NCAA Tournament’s eligibility standards, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, supports the Knight Commission’s recommendation to ban teams with less than a 50-percent graduation rate. “Money talks,” Duncan told USA Today. “So right now, there is an absolute perverse incentive. Folks, follow the money, and the money said, ‘We don’t care about academic outcomes.’”

The NCAA basketball tourney gives participating colleges their most visible moment with the American general public. What if, during one of those promotional commercials during the CBS broadcasts, the NCAA announced that half of the 2011 revenues earned would be awarded to colleges that meet academic performance guidelines? Skeptics would say such a move would “affect the quality of ‘the product’ on the court.” Maybe. But it also would signal that the NCAA’s heart was now in the right place.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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