APR Fallout Will Change The Game
ORLANDO--Somewhere between the fire and brimstone raining down from the podium at the American Baseball Coaches Association Division I business meeting, the message started to set in with coaches throughout the huge conference room at the Marriott World Center convention center: Major changes are needed in college baseball's academic culture.
Discussion of the NCAA's sobering Academic Progress Rate (APR) dominated the meeting and carried on throughout the weekend at the 2007 ABCA convention. Coaches who might have harbored hope that the APR would just go away quietly were left to face the unpleasant reality that many programs are going to have to drastically change the way they do business, or else face dire consequences.
"To say there's not going to be change is not an option. There is going to be change," Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton, chairman of the Division I baseball committee, told the assembled coaches. "The future of this sport right now is going to ride on the importance of the APR. And in baseball, even though some of us want to believe the sport is in great shape, it is a major concern to the leadership of the NCAA."
That concern from outside the college baseball world is what's really driving the push for academic reform, which could result in sweeping changes to college baseball's transfer rules and recruiting practices. Many coaches believe the APR unfairly penalizes baseball, which faces a unique set of circumstances because of scholarship limitations and the nature of the major league draft, with all college players eligible after their junior seasons.
"I know many of us in this room, myself included, don't believe that our student-athletes are performing poorly--the great majority of them are performing at a very high level," said Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri, the ABCA's Division I chair. "But unfortunately the statistics have given a different result, so what's happened is these presidents of the universities have passed a committee to come up with a game plan as to how to enhance the performance of our players in the classroom. Whether we agree or disagree that they need to be doing a better job, the reality is that we're under a microscope right now."Credit-Hour Calamity
The statistics that so alarmed the college presidents and NCAA board of directors paint a bleak picture. According to the APR, which awards retention points for each semester a student-athlete is in good academic standing, college baseball players earn fewer credit hours per year than any other college athletes, including football and men's basketball players, even though baseball players on average post higher grade-point averages than players in those revenue-producing sports. Forty percent of baseball's lost APR points are a result of ineligibility because of a lack of credit hours, rather than poor grades.
One major reason for that is baseball players don't load up on summer classes to ensure they have enough credit hours, like athletes in other sports do, because most of them play in summer college leagues such as the Cape Cod League.
"If you want baseball players to go to summer school then you're going to have to create summer baseball at the collegiate level, and then they'll go to summer school," said Baylor coach Steve Smith, the first vice president of the ABCA. "If a basketball or football player had to go play basketball or football in the summer to prove themselves (to professional scouts), they wouldn't be going to summer school either."
That means, for example, if a baseball player is three hours shy of satisfactory progress at the end of the spring semester, he can't catch himself up during the summer, so instead he will take 12 or 15 credit hours in the fall. In the current system, baseball players don't have to be academically eligible to play in the spring until after the fall semester, so players spend the fall catching up--but their bad standing in the fall hurts schools in the APR.
One likely solution to this problem is a modification of when athletes will be certified eligible. Players will have to be eligible at the start of the fall semester instead of the end. That will put a strain on athletes during the spring when games are being played, but they're going to have to make it work, because the only other choice is taking summer classes at the expense of playing summer baseball.
The NCAA board of directors and some university presidents have pushed for a reduction in the number of games in the season to allow players to improve their academic performance in the spring, but ABCA executive director Dave Keilitz told the assembled coaches that NCAA statistics bear no correlation between the number of games teams play and the APR. In order to combat the knee-jerk reaction to cut games--a notion coaches strenuously oppose--the ABCA leadership convinced NCAA president Myles Brand to commission a 26-member academic enhancement group composed of presidents, athletic directors and coaches to study how to improve baseball's APR. That group created a six-member subcommittee to write a report and a proposal that will be presented to the entire committee in February.Transfer Epidemic
Members of the subcommittee were reluctant to go into too much detail before their report was complete, but they made it clear the major issues that need to be addressed are the credit-hour issue and transfer issues, particularly junior college transfers. The professional signing problem already has been resolved--if a player signs a professional contract as a junior or sophomore, schools will not lose a retention point as long as the player is in good academic standing when he leaves.
But the transfer problem, long a contentious one at past ABCA conventions, is nettlesome. Keilitz said baseball has more transfers than any other collegiate sport--27 percent of all Division I baseball players have transferred, which is about on par with basketball but much higher than football's 13 percent transfer rate. And 19 percent of Division I baseball players are transfers from two-year schools, as opposed to 8 percent in football and 4 percent in all other sports. That's a problem because two-year transfer students lose twice as many points as other players.
"The transfer issue is an epidemic," said UNC Greensboro coach Mike Gaski, the only coach on the six-member subcommittee that will present a report to the academic enhancement group. "No matter how you look at it, it's an issue that needs to be addressed, but it's complicated. It's tied into financial aid, it's tied into opportunity, it's tied into so many factors."
One possible solution being explored is adopting the transfer rule from basketball and football, which requires athletes to sit out a year after transferring.
"But, here's the problem with that, the distinction from basketball," Gaski said. "Basketball players are on full scholarship. There's a smaller number of them. So the absence of a center jumping ship can leave literally a big hole in the middle of a basketball team. But so many of our young men have partial scholarships--$500, or book scholarships--how are you going to tell a kid who's only getting a modest scholarship and not playing and maybe paying $25,000 or $30,000 a year that he can't transfer to another school?"
Gaski suggested one rule that might be implemented is the Southeastern Conference's stipulation that a transfer from a two-year school must have his associate degree in order to be eligible to compete in the SEC. That would remedy the two-year transfer issue, and requiring athletes to be academically eligible in the fall--like the Big 10 Conference does--would alleviate many four-year transfer problems.Scaring Schools Straight
Whatever the solutions, they must happen quickly, because stiff penalties are on the horizon. This year, 21 baseball programs lost scholarships (up to 1.17, or 10 percent of their maximum scholarship allotment) for having an APR score below the 900 cutline, and many others were spared penalties because of a squad-size adjustment. But starting in May, the squad-size adjustment will only aid schools that have an APR between 900 and 925--not those that fall below 900. Every team that has an APR below 900 will lose scholarships and receive a public warning, which can be used against it on the recruiting trail.
Starting in 2009, there will be additional penalties for schools that fall below 900, potentially including lost practice time, recruiting restrictions, loss of scholarships, loss of games and ineligibility for the NCAA tournament.
"Keep in mind this is a four-year rolling figure," Keilitz told the coaches. "I'm going to tell you right now that there are programs in this room that, in two years, you can't make up the difference. If you're an 850 or an 870 or whatever it may be, you're not going to make it. So you better go to work right now so four years down the road you've eliminated that problem."
Starting in 2010, if a school has any athletic program that falls below the cutline, no team in any sport at that school will be allowed to participate in the NCAA tournament.
"Now, do you believe that a school is going to let a baseball program or a swimming program prevent their basketball program from playing in the NCAA tournament?" Keilitz said. "Probably they'll drop the program. Now, some programs they won't drop--they'll fire the coach before then. But they'll drop the program in certain schools if it puts their schools in jeopardy of losing the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament.
"I don't believe those of you that are presently doing a good job should be punished by this. Those that have put us in this particular predicament should be the ones who are punished. I look at those schools, I know who those schools are, some of them surprise me, some of them did not surprise me. But quite frankly I don't have any sympathy for some of you with the situation that you're in. I can tell you right now, you cannot continue to sign 20, 25, 30 kids a year and ever make it with the APR. That's not going to happen.
"If I scared you or Larry scared you, so be it, but that's where we're at. We're going to move forward on this."
But it wasn't all doom and gloom at the business meeting. The overarching message was that, like it or not, the APR is here to stay, so coaches better make the best of it. In so doing, they have an opportunity to make college baseball better by improving its academic health. How the sport handles that opportunity will be crucial.
"I've been in athletics for 33 years, I've been the athletic director for Mississippi State for 20," Templeton said. "I've been a supporter of college baseball for the entire time. But in my opinion, the next three months for college baseball are probably the most critical in the history of our sport."