Friday, January 4, 2013

The NCAA and unintended consequences

Earlier today, my attention was drawn to a tweet from John Infante, a former NCAA compliance officer who writes the Bylaw Blog for Athnet. I've written a fair amount about the NCAA and its relationship with "student-athletes" before, so I thought this latest tidbit was worth sharing. In an article teased in his own tweet, Infante writes:
In the wake of last summer’s highly publicized transfer battles (Ed. Note: like these), the news that the NCAA was looking at changing the transfer rules was refreshing. What appeared to be an inconsistent standard for waivers along with student-athletes needed permission to contact other schools lead to a popular backlash against the NCAA’s transfer regulations, a sentiment that was echoed by NCAA President Mark Emmert... 
There is no formal proposal yet, but the Leadership Council published a set of principles for updated transfer rules that make it easy to see what those specific rules might be.
One of those principles is the topic of this post (and of Infante's tweet), the principle regarding a GPA contingency:

In general, I think this principle is a clear step in the right direction, as it restores some rights to student-athletes who, through no fault of their own, are left in a situation that is dramatically different from the one they entered (like a coach leaving for the NFL, or dying, or a program being put on probation for violations that occurred before the player arrived, etc.). It also hypothetically provides these student-athletes with an incentive to actually go to class, which is definitely a positive for everyone involved.

However, as usual, it wouldn't be a policy if there weren't some unintended consequences to consider. In this case, I see a great problem with setting a GPA threshold that doesn't (and can't) vary based on the quality of the institution. Are we to pretend that a 2.6 GPA is as easily attainable at Stanford or Notre Dame as it is at San Jose State or Arizona? Since we know that it isn't, doesn't this proposal effectively penalize those students who choose to go to schools with rigorous academics? And by extension, isn't it also penalizing those schools for not watering down their academic programs to benefit the student-athletes? If so, is that really what we want our NCAA policies to be doing?

As I wrote in a Twitter response to this news, encouraging schools to downgrade the rigor of their academic programs is a poor long-term strategy. Unfortunately, that's arguably what this policy would do, simply because of the incentives that it creates for student-athletes when they are considering schools. If an athlete with a 2.6 GPA has more rights than an athlete without one, then every kid should do everything in his power to make sure that he can attain a 2.6 GPA.

In an ideal world, that would mean that the athletes in question would all buckle down and work harder in school, and we'd end up with a world full of student-athletes with sparkling collegiate transcripts. But over here in the real world, all it does is encourage the kids to go to schools where they can get a 2.6 just by showing up, thereby immediately receiving more rights as an athlete.

Is that really what we want? Do we actually want to steer athletes away from the top academic schools, simply because they're likely to have more rights at the lower-tier ones? I don't think so, and I hardly think that's the idea at the core of this proposal. But unintended consequences are consequences nonetheless, and they require careful consideration by policy-makers at all levels of governance.

This winter, we have seen several top-rated schools play in meaningful football games—from Northwestern gaining its first bowl win since 1949 to Stanford winning the Rose Bowl for the first time in 40 years to Notre Dame playing for the national title for the first time in what seems like forever. Hell, even Vanderbilt won itself a bowl game, in a bowl season where most SEC teams can't seem to get out of their own way.

Against all odds, teams are finding a way to excel both in athletics and in academics, and yet the NCAA wants to pass a rule that would take us in the opposite direction, even if unintentionally. That would be a terrible shame, and I encourage the NCAA to reconsider this proposal, which has good intentions but potentially dire consequences.


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