MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - I should never be confused with an expert on the ins and outs of academics and how they relate to NCAA athletics.I usually concern myself with sticks and balls and the like, and how fast a college student can run or how high he can jump or how far he can throw.Academically, I know he has to do enough to remain eligible, primarily in terms of making both sufficient grades and progress toward a degree. That second element didn't used to be a part of the equation. Now it is, which is good.I also know the general principles regarding admission to school and the acceptance of a scholarship, namely that there is a sliding scale balancing high school grades and college admissions tests. The higher your grades, the lower the test scores need to be, and vice versa.
There. Those, in a nutshell, are the basics. They're probably the ones you know, too.And then there's the APR.No, it's not the annual percentage rate on your car loan. In this case it's the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate, which that group has been measuring now for a decade. And I'm still not sure what to make of it.Oh, again, I understand the basics, the formula. Every athlete in a particular sport at a particular school earns points for remaining eligible and in school. Those who fail to do one or the other fail to earn certain of those points. Divide this and multiply that and in a perfect world a school's score - or a sport's score - is 1,000. The NCAA then sets minimum standards and if a sport at a school fails to reach it, it is penalized through a variety of means including - but not limited to - reduced practice time, scholarship reductions and postseason bans.The truth is, after 10 years I've learned the system pretty well for someone who isn't involved in it - a spectator, as it were. And in the past I've tended to criticize it.Now I'm not so sure.Yes, the APR still deserves some criticism. My main beef with it is the same as it's always been, namely that the best way to avoid penalties is not so much to better educate athletes, but to buy into the system. And for the most part, after 10 years everyone has learned to work the system.Consider that, over the years, the number of schools being docked scholarships because of poor APR scores has dwindled to nothing, literally. For instance, the numbers that were released in 2010 - for the 2008-09 school year - showed somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 athletic teams at Division I schools that were forced to reduce scholarships by varying degrees. The next year the number dropped to about 60, then last year to just two.The NCAA released its 2011-12 figures this week and the number is now at zero.Is that because student-athletes are doing better? Well, no doubt that's part of it. But that kind of change in the statistics points pretty clearly, I think, to schools also learning how to manipulate the APR scores.OK, manipulate is probably a bad word. Let's say ease the pain. Over the years, coaches and administrators have learned to address one basic goal above all others. Even if they're going to lose an athlete to transfer or other reasons, make sure he or she does it at the end of a semester and is academically eligible when he does it. In some sports (especially those with small squad sizes), even one guy quitting and dropping out of school while ineligible can mean a huge drop in the APR score.
Consider, too, that the highest-profile schools - for lack of a better grouping name we'll call them the BCS-level schools - have seen their APR scores rise and their penalty numbers decrease almost to the point that it's no longer even an issue (provided they keep it up).In the history of the APR, 32 teams have been hit with postseason bans, all in the last two years. Just one - Connecticut's men's basketball team - was a member of a power conference. Most - almost all, in fact - are schools the NCAA terms "limited resource'' schools. And nearly all of those are what the NCAA also has a name for, the HBCUs - historically black colleges and universities.In other words, the schools with the money and the success have figured out how to work inside the system. Others? Not so much.Look at the number of sports teams being penalized in any way for low APR scores. This year, the number was 36, none of them BCS-level schools and virtually none even considered mid-majors. They are almost all the Gramblings and Alabama States and the Norfolk States of the world.A few years ago, that wasn't the case. As recently as two reporting cycles ago, LSU, N.C. State, Rutgers, Louisville, Maryland and others were being docked scholarships in certain sports. Go back five years and the list is too long to chronicle. That one included three West Virginia teams, too - wrestling, men's soccer and women's rowing.Yes, while the scholarship-reduction penalties have declined across the board, the postseason bans are just beginning. But with the exception of the UConn basketball team last season, none of the schools penalized are the ones that have learned the system and have the wherewithal to play in it.
Does that mean the APR is useless, though? No. The fact is, if schools are keeping student-athletes eligible and on a better track toward graduation, it's a good thing, even if the primary intent is to avoid APR sanctions. For instance, if a basketball coach fosters a better relationship with a kid so that if he decides to leave he won't do it the wrong way (for APR purposes), fine. And if he manages to make certain the kid stays eligible through the end of the semester so that he won't wreck the team's APR, who does that hurt?The bottom line is it's still a benefit to the student-athlete, no matter the reasoning behind it.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.