So, this is what hope and change really looks like.
Any organization that recognizes its deficiencies and swiftly (relative term) acts to correct them gets a standing ovation in my book. Comcast showed how much it "Cares" with a revolutionary social media effort to improve customer service and rejuvenate its dying brand. Wendy's spent valuable time and money remaking its hamburgers, focusing on every delicate detail from the patty and bun to the condiments and veggies, following up with a marketing campaign of commitment and dedication that included the late founder Dave Thomas' daughter, Wendy.
In an ever-changing world, any successful multi-million, or in the NCAA's case multi-billion, dollar industry must adapt, whether it be remaking its image, restructuring its founding principles or a combination of the two.
Many companies throw water on the windows and try to convince you they are clean, but what the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved last Thursday is not window dressing, rather an aggressive reform package that can be spun no other way than as a huge success.
"What occurred today is historic. These changes demonstrate a remarkable resolve," said NCAA president Mark Emmert last week. "They represent a return to and a focus on the values that are at the core of what intercollegiate athletics are all about. They also represent a clear signal to the world about what we care about and what we stand for."
In no uncertain terms, Emmert's use of the word "historic" is apt since nothing as bold has not only ever been approached, but approved in such resounding fashion. The NCAA should be congratulated for placing student well being at the top of the agenda and acting in a quick, decisive manner.
The NCAA rules reform package includes the following measures, which will then be tackled one at a time.
- Student athlete stipend: Conferences will have up-or-down say on adding $2,000 in "full cost-of-attendance" to scholarship offers.
- Scholarship advantages: Schools can offer multi-year scholarships that cannot be revoked based on athletic performance.
- Enforcement of Academic Progress Rate: The four-year Academic Progress Rate cutline is moved from 900 to 930. The cutline will be the line in the sand for postseason eligibility.
- Players must make the grade: Incoming freshmen will need a 2.3 Grade Point Average (GPA) as a high school senior and must complete 10 of 16 core courses before their senior year. Junior college transfers, the quick-fix route for many coaches, will need a 2.5 GPA and can only count two physical education credits toward eligibility.
- Recruiting restructuring: Coaches can text or call players as much as they want after June 15 of their sophomore year. Four evaluation days were added in typically quiet April, but the period in July was sliced from 20 to 12. The prospects of more on-campus contact with recruits and current players during the summer will be broached in January.
You will not see "pay-for-play" in any NCAA press release highlighting the changes, and in fact the powers-that-be insist the $2,000 in spending money is just the reintroduction of a stipend program that existed until 1972. Some studies showed, including those brought up by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney, that the number should have been double, but the progress is to be lauded and should quiet the roars of athletic exploitation to mere whispers.
However, the process will not be as easy as writing and cashing checks. Schools must take a look at the cost of additional funding and Title IX rules will force the money to be spent equally among men's and women's athletics. The lone drawback, if you want to call it one, comes when looking at the financial war chests of BCS schools, which will likely pass the additional funding immediately, compared to non-BCS schools, which may have to parse budget sheets line by line to come up with the cash.
It raises concerns about widening the competitive divide and stokes the fires of questions surrounding non-BCS schools' desires to jump ship to the bigger conferences with the bigger bank accounts aided by TV contracts and postseason profit sharing.
No system is perfect, and any financial payment to student athletes brings up budgetary concerns, but this step is a good first one in rewarding the stars of a highly profitable entertainment enterprise (though the NCAA would never agree on the record to that terminology).
The scholarship decision provides student athletes with more security and assurances that a college education cannot be taken away for on-field performances. Coaches, in the pressure cooker to produce wins year-in and year-out, would pass scholarships around like cheap hookers, throwing away the ones who weren't producing for a younger, stronger, faster athlete. No more.
As of this printing, scholarships are renewed annually and can be revoked for any reason in the book. Under the new set-up, schools could guarantee scholarships for a player's entire career, but could only revoke it based on poor grades, academic misconduct or improper behavior.
Flunk a few classes, assault a woman, and wave bye-bye to your educational funding. Drop a football or miss a layup, coach can't make you foot the bill. This provision, if approved, will likely add an interesting dynamic to recruiting. Four-year guaranteed scholarships would be used as recruiting chips to lure "can't-miss" recruits, but if you miss, the new provision would not let you just erase the mistake.
The most aggressive provision, and the one that truly brings the NCAA back to its mission and core, involves a renewed emphasis on academics. Adding 30 "points" to the Academic Progress Rate cutline may not seem like a lot, but if it was enforced last year, seven men's basketball teams and eight football teams would have been ineligible for postseason play.
During the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons, teams scoring below 900 on a four- year average would be ineligible unless they averaged the new 930 benchmark on the two most recent years. In 2014-2015, teams must average an APR of 930 or 940 in the two most recent years to avoid ineligibility. Each team must hit the 930 mark after that.
Connecticut may be the first team to feel the brunt. UConn posted an 826 last year, and let's be honest, that score is an abomination and a slap in the face of a well-regarded institution. According to reports, a UConn official has stated that the 2010-2011 mark will jump to 975, giving it a two-year average of 900.5. That number doesn't meet the 930 benchmark in place for 2012-2013 since the Huskies' four-year average of 888.5 is also too low according to the phase-in numbers.
If everything holds true to the newly created form, and UConn is asking for both clarification and suggesting minor adaptations to the format, the defending national champions will not be eligible for the 2013 NCAA Tournament. And to that I say, bravo.
A collegiate athletic program's first job is to graduate players, and a score of 826 is so laughably below the previous benchmark, to the point where Connecticut has already been punished with two less scholarships, that no leniency is necessary in my judgment. It's a cautionary tale, and if the Huskies are made the example, so be it. They aren't a martyr or sacrificial lamb; instead they lost their way as an academic entity and instead became a basketball factory full of, what largely appears in retrospect, student athletes who shouldn't have been allowed through the university doors to begin with.
Academics are also at the forefront of an increased focus on incoming freshmen and junior college transfers. Previously, high school seniors needed only a 2.0 GPA in 16 core courses, which could probably be attained by showing up, taking tests and paying a nerd to do your homework. The standards have been raised to a still paltry 2.3, while JUCOs must have a 2.5 GPA. I like the change, but would have made it a uniform 2.5 number across the board. Maybe the NCAA wanted to strengthen its image in terms of junior college transfers brought in as program fixes at all costs. Now, it will at least cost a few more academic points.
Finally, the new recruiting structure gives coaches something they have been clamoring for (evaluation time in April), but cuts down the overall evaluation time, especially the non-stop traveling in July at the root of many coaches' stress and overall health issues. Coaches can make up for that lost evaluation time with unlimited contacts after June 15 of a player's sophomore year. These changes attempt, and to a large degree deliver, on putting recruiting back in the hands of coaches and limiting the influence of agents and AAU coaches during what had been a summer free-for-all.
The parts are equally as strong as the whole, as each strengthens clear organizational weaknesses and turns the focus back on the NCAA's prime responsibility, the student athletes.
Like organizations that are reborn and thriving in a rapidly diverse world full of influence, power and temptation, the NCAA has boldly taken a step forward with actions that will allow it to take a step back to its roots. It is truly change we can believe in.