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Searching for Effective Football Penalties in the NCAA

Published:  September 26, 2007

Yesterday, we highlighted the poor performance of college football players in the classroom and discussed the NCAAs academic reform efforts. After this season, the NCAA will have finished collecting all of its academic progress rate (APR) data on Division I colleges and is slated to implement a full range of penalties for underperforming teams. Approximately 40 percent of college football teams are in danger of losing scholarships next year. What remains to be seen is whether the penalties will have any impact on academic programs for college athletes.

As the college football season gets underway and new APR data accumulates, we anticipate three important questions for the NCAA: (1) Will the organization follow through with the athletic program penalties it has threatened to impose on colleges for poor academic performance? (2) Will NCAA athletic program penalties have a meaningful effect on student-athlete performance? and (3) If not, what will the organization do to make its intervention policies more effective?

Our not-so-shocking prediction: Even if the NCAA follows through with its threats, the association's heralded academic reform program will have little to no impact on student performance and colleges' actions.

As we explained yesterday, the NCAA will have enough data next year to stop using a "squad-size" statistical adjustment, which allowed most college athletic programs to avoid penalty this year. While only 43, or 18 percent, of football teams were penalized last year, next year almost 100 teams may lose scholarships.

Will the increase in penalties have a significant (or any) impact on schools behavior? First, theres the question of whether the NCAA will stick to its guns. Under the NCAA's rules, schools are allowed to file waivers and appeal penalties for a wide variety of reasons. While some of these waivers may be legitimatefor schools in Louisiana still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, for examplethere is the possibility that colleges could use them as an escape hatch. If the NCAA issues enough waivers, the penalties would become a joke.

But really, the scholarship penalties are somewhat of a joke already. A Division I football team can offer up to 85 scholarships, and the NCAA has set a maximum on the number of scholarships that can be revokedonly 10 percent, or up to 8.5 scholarships.

In a typical college football game, probably only around 30 players actually get playing time. This means that more than half of the scholarship players sit on the bench. So losing up to eight or nine of your scholarship players is pretty insignificantespecially when their spots can be filled with non-scholarship players for practice squads.

The NCAA does have an opportunity to impose more damaging penalties on the worst performers. Under the current rules, schools that repeatedly score below 900 APR are supposed to see harsher punishments, such as "restrictions" on scholarships, recruiting, and practice time. After four consecutive years of posting scores below 900 (which wont be until the 2009-2010 season), a school is supposed to lose its membership to Division I athletics.

However, the NCAA hasnt yet specified what the precise "restrictions" on scholarships, recruiting, and practice time will be, and thus has given itself a lot of wiggle room. And it's hard to believe that the NCAA will go as far as revoking Division I membership, given the immense popularity of Division I sports. Not to mention the money-making machine that is Division I-A football, which gives football teams an inordinate amount of political influence.

Academic failure by student-athletes is commonplace and probably isnt surprising to most people. But that doesnt mean it should be accepted as inevitable. The NCAA has taken a first step toward addressing the issue. Let's hope it seizes the opportunity to make its academic reform program meaningful. That means making sure the penalties hurt enough to spur substantive changes in college athletic programs.

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