Known to miss, NCAA better follow up overdue satisfactory-progress shot


PHILADELPHIA -- Taking shots at the NCAA is normally such a simple task. For decades now, the people in charge of college athletics have been an unrelenting study in both blindness and arrogance, the easiest of targets.

Equal justice? Forget it.

Obsessed with inconsequential nit-picking? Always.

Concern for minorities? Hah.

Concern for the athletes? Hah-hah.

But that was then, and this is now. And the NCAA Presidents Commission last week did a few things that received scant public notice, but that are really good things.

Now, let's see if the members vote them in this January.

"It sounds good to me," said St. Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia. "I'm still waiting to see the final details, but from what I've read, these look like good, forward steps."

The most important thing they did was to address the issue of satisfactory progress. It is the most important thing because it is the only issue that matters. It is the only issue that the NCAA really needs to address. The NCAA rule book these days is as thick as the phone book in a medium-sized city, but the members could throw away 99 percent of it if they would just take a stand on this one point.

Satisfactory progress; that is, getting the kids through school in good order and in five years. Satisfactory progress; getting the athletes into a real major and getting them onto a regular, measurable road toward graduation. That's it. That's what this is all about. But it's an issue that the members of the NCAA have largely run away from. They've run away because it is the one issue that will most effectively put the cynical schemers out of business.

Oh, they've gotten some satisfactory-progress standards onto the books, but only some. They'll hang you for giving a kid a T-shirt, but not for failing to shepherd your athletes toward a degree.

For years, the NCAA has seemed to focus most of its attention on how you deal with a kid before he gets into your school, and not enough of its attention on what's fair and what's best after the athlete has enrolled. If you want to talk illegal recruiting, you can read pages and pages on what's allowed and what's not allowed. But spending money for athletes, who aren't even allowed to have an in-semester job? Nope. And academic regulations? Precious few.

Now, the Presidents Commission has proposed a fine standard. If the proposal passes, an athlete will have had to complete 25 percent of his specific degree requirements in his chosen major by the start of his third year, 50 percent by the start of his fourth year, and 75 percent by the start of his fifth year. And if he doesn't, he doesn't play.

"This will be hailed as a good thing, and it is," DiJulia said. "But what kind of commentary is it on our system that something as basic, as simple, as this is not taken for granted on every campus?"

But, think: If the NCAA passes this, and it enforces this, what else does the NCAA need? Nothing, really. If an athlete gets through school, almost nothing else matters -- and certainly not Proposition 48, which decides who plays as a freshman and who doesn't based upon grades in a core of high school courses, and SAT scores.

The NCAA is married to Prop 48 now, even if it disproportionately affects black athletes, even if the people who administer the SAT have long maintained that the NCAA is misusing their test as a cutoff for admission. But in the cry for standards -- led by a Presidents Commission that has been more meddlesome than effective until now -- this one is on the books for good. And it's only going to get tougher, as the commission has demonstrated.

Under the old Prop 48, a high school player needed to attain a 2.0 grade-point average in 11 core courses. Under the proposed revisions, the number will be a 2.5 in 13 core courses. This part isn't bad. It's a stiff jump, but that's OK. It's not unreasonable to ask a kid to prove he can hit the books in high school -- as well as hitting his jumper.

But look what the commission has done. It has created a loophole,and it has misused the SAT again. Under the proposal, if you don't hit the new standard of 2.5, you can still avoid the Prop 48 penalties by scoring higher than 700 on the SAT. If you only have a 2.25, you can still be qualified with an 800 on the SAT.

Basically, these are protections for kids at smart schools (where a 2.5 might be tougher to attain than it is downtown). These are protections for kids from affluent backgrounds. These are protections, in some cases, for smart-but-lazy kids to whom the SAT might come easy.

But who's protecting the underprivileged kid? Who's protecting the kid from a poor area of the country with poor schools, or from a single-parent family with no educational role models? Who is protecting the black kid from the inner city who busts his butt to get a 2.9 in his core courses but who can't crack the SAT code, no way, no how.

Who would you rather have in your school, or on your athletic team -- a relatively smart kid who has no focus and no desire, or a kid with a more marginal academic background who is willing to kill himself to make it in the classroom? I'd rather have the second kid; the NCAA would rather have the first.

The Prop 48 fixation remains a problem, and it will gain much of the attention at the January convention because it has racial overtones, plus a controversial history. By contrast, the satisfactory-progress proposal has less sex appeal, even if it is the most important.

Can the NCAA ignore it again?

Maybe. But at a time when the NCAA says it is changing, a time when the NCAA is attempting to change a decades-long image of indifference to the really important issues, it might just make it this time.

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