Pulse: Chatter: Sports: Watching the Score

This May, the NCAA is getting tougher on college athletic programs whose students don’t make the grade academically

Area athletic directors will be sweating some numbers due from the NCAA this spring, but they won’t be the ones in tournament brackets. The eyes of the collegiate sports world will be on the Academic Progress Rate (APR), a complex formula that sets a benchmark score of 925 — roughly equivalent to a 60 percent graduation success rate — that school athletic programs have to meet in order to play without penalties. Created in 2004, the APR was seen as an answer to critics who charge that college sports programs — especially at the big football and basketball schools — are merely factories encouraging players to not sweat studying. For the past four years, low-scoring programs have been able to dive for cover behind the extra leeway the NCAA’s old formula gave, but come this May, the coddling ceases. Under heavy scrutiny, the NCAA is expected to impose tough sanctions on failing programs, including restricting scholarships and, in extreme cases, instituting post-season bans. The threat is real: With the new formula starting this spring, 44 percent of all teams in Division 1 basketball would have fouled out last year.

In the Big Five, the forecast could best be described as mostly sunny, with a chance of showers. With five sports falling below the 925 benchmark, Temple would appear to be looking down the barrel of a gun. But athletic director Bill Bradshaw hopes the NCAA powers-that-be will see Temple’s newly restructured academic monitoring process as a step in the right direction — even if student-athlete grades aren’t there yet. “The NCAA’s intent is not to be punitive, but progressive,” Bradshaw says. “It is my understanding that they will reward progress. This year, I think we will show some of the biggest jumps in year-to-year scores in the country.”

Though La Salle’s basketball team skirted by last year with an APR of 928, AD Tom Brennan says the current group is full of “bright guys” who averaged a 3.0 GPA in the 2007 spring semester. But sanctions could be coming to City Line if St. Joe’s doesn’t improve scores for its basketball program (APR: 920). Frustrated AD Don DiJulia says the Hawks would have done just fine if not for a transfer situation, and admits the squad “could be below the cut line again.”

Predictably, Penn isn’t expecting much trouble from its Tolstoy-quoting athletes. While agreeing that the APR’s “intent is probably good,” Penn AD Steve Bilsky airily says, “This particular issue isn’t critical on our campus.” With similarly high APRs, Villanova is also sanguine. For other schools, March Madness might take on a whole new meaning.