In September 2010, Dr. Mark Emetic, recently-appointed president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, was kind enough to share his thoughts about what the NCAA calls its Academic Progress Rate. We thought members and alumni of Rutgers 1000 would be interested in the interview.
ARR: Dr. Emetic, what is this "APR" we hear so much about?
Dr. Emetic: Well, basically it tells you how well the athletics departments of Division IA schools are doing in getting their athletes on towards graduation.
ARR: We see. Why do we keep hearing that that this "APR" is really an empty public relations gimmick?
Dr. Emetic: Zeke, that's a common misperception.Take a look at schools like Ohio State and LSU and Michigan. You'll find that most of their football and basketball players are taking courses in medieval history, pre-Socratic philosophy, algebraic topology, Renaissance Neoplatonism, things like that. The APR measures their performance in those courses.
ARR: So the rumor that many of these players read and write at a third-grade level is false?
Dr. Emetic: Totally. It's circulated by a few "intellectuals" who have their own weird ideas about the ideals they think universities should be living up to.
ARR: Do you have any evidence that Div IA athletes are really taking the courses you talk about? For instance, that most Ohio State football players are studying things like history and philosophy and mathematics and physics?
Dr. Emetic: Of course. I've seen the transcripts.
ARR: That's immensely reassuring. Could you let us look at those transcripts?
Dr. Emetic: (somewhat flustered) Actually, no. It's a student privacy issue. You know, the Buckley Amendment. FERPA. Athletics personnel are very moral, very idealistic. They're tremendously sensitive about things like student privacy.
ARR: Let us try to understand. It's okay for you to see the academic transcripts of Div IA athletes? For coaches to see them? For tutors to see them? In short, for everyone inside the Athletics Department to see them?
Dr. Emetic: Of course. Why do you think we call them "student athletes"?
ARR: But if anyone outside the Athletics Department wanted to see what courses football or basketball players were taking, that would be a violation of student privacy?
Dr. Emetic: (relieved). You've got it.
ARR: So all anyone has to go on is this "APR" scheme of yours? You look at the transcripts, you indiscriminately treat the courses as "real" college courses, you translate the results into a point system you yourselves devised, then you send the results to the PR people who work for Div IA athletics departments?
Dr. Emetic: (cheerfully) That's it. The APR. Academic progress. Excellence in academics and athletics. The best of both worlds.
ARR: We see. But given the fact that this hides from sight everything thing that the "APR" purports to measure, could we ask a few questions about how it actually works in specific cases?
Dr. Emetic: (serenely) Ask away.
ARR: Okay. Let's start with the case of Jim Harrick, formerly the basketball coach at the University of Georgia. In his book Confessions of a Spoilsport, W.C. Dowling reports on a course taught by the coach's son, Jim Harrick, Jr. It was called "Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball." The grade for the course was based solely on the final exam. Here are some sample questions:
Our question is simple: if a player enrolled in this course completed the final exam with a grade of A, would that earn his athletics department points in the APR?
Dr. Emetic: Of course. We're not in the business of telling schools what to teach. Or how to test them. Or how to grade them. Academic progress is academic progress.
ARR: We see. Here's another question. Suppose a Georgia basketball player had gotten an A for this course. Would he get the same APR points as if he'd gotten an A in, say, Byzantine history or Multivariable Calculus?
Dr. Emetic: Yes. The same number of points.
ARR: Okay. Let's look at another Div IA school, Michigan. There, the Ann Arbor News did a prize-winning investigative series showing that many Michigan football players were being kept eligible by taking "independent studies" with one John Hagen, a psychology professor. The newspaper had a picture of him sitting directly behind the bench at a Michigan home game.
Dr. Emetic: Are you trying to suggest that there's anything wrong with giving sideline seats to professors who enjoy football?
ARR: Not at all. But it did turn out that this professor had taught 294 independent studies in one three-year period. As you know, these are "personal," one-on-one courses with a professor who awards the student 3 credits and decides on a grade. In Hagen's case, 85 per cent of these independent studies, 251, were with athletes.
Dr. Emetic: My goodness. Did Hagen realize that so huge a percentage of his independent study course roster was athletes?
ARR: Actually, he began by trying to deny it. He didn't realize that the reporters had gotten access to the transcripts.
Dr. Emetic: (shocked) But what about student privacy? The Buckley Amendment?
ARR: There was no violation of student privacy. Their source had blanked out student names. The transcripts simply showed the name of the professor and indicated which belonged to a "student athlete."
Dr. Emetic: My goodness.
ARR: Perhaps you see why we're a bit perplexed. Suppose that a Div IA school has "compliant" professors who are willing to launder athletes' grades -- "independent study" courses with no work and a guaranteed "A." Suppose that players pile up a huge number of credits with these professors.
Take Hagen's case, for instance. At least 48 athletes took two or more "independent study" courses with him. Nine had taken three or more. On that year's Michigan football team, 22 players had taken "independent study" courses with Hagen. Most got A's. None received a grade lower than B.
You, Dr. Emetic, keep insisting that Div IA players are real college students. But suppose there's a Michigan player who reads and writes at a 3rd-grade level, and who takes an "independent study" with a compliant faculty member. It involves no outside reading. There are no tests. It requires no written work. The entire "course" consists of one 20-minute conversation with the professor at the beginning of the term. For this, the player gets an B+, plus 3 credits on his transcript.
Doesn't this explain why so many skeptics say the APR is an empty public relations ploy?
Dr. Emetic: I keep trying to tell you, it's a procedure. The NCAA doesn't care whether or not the athlete is answering questions about a 3-point goal or taking some fake course with a professor who wants to suck up to football players. It's progress. We measure progress.
ARR: Just bear with us, Dr. Emetic. We know this is frustrating, but you've got to realize that there are people out there in America who might be taking this "APR" business seriously. The schools who get high APR rankings trumpet them to the skies. People might get misled. Just bear with us. You're doing a public service here.
Dr. Emetic: (somewhat mollified) All right. But I don't like it.
ARR: Dr. Emetic, in the Ann Arbor News series, it also turned out that a large number of athletes were piling up credits by taking classes in the Native American language Ojibwe, usually for grades of A or B.
Dr. Emetic: What's wrong with that? You got something against Native Americans?
ARR: To the contrary, Dr. E. We think that in an age of creeping globalization, it's tremendously important that our remaining regional and native languages be studied and preserved.
Dr. Emetic: So what's wrong with football players taking Ojibwe? Isn't that "preserving a native language"?
ARR: The problem, Dr. Emetic, is that these football players didn't learn Ojibwe.
Dr. Emetic: You can't be serious.
ARR: We're serious. One player was taking a "general studies degree" that let him pile up credits by taking lots of film and video courses plus independent study courses with the "football friendly" psychology professor. He also took four courses in Ojibwe. He got two A's, an A-minus, and a B.
Dr. Emetic: Hah! So how do you know he didn't know any Ojibwe?
ARR: Because a News reporter asked him to explain what Ojibwe was.
Dr. Emetic: (warily) You mean, simply to explain that Ojibwe was a Native American language?
Dr. Emetic: (warily) What did he answer?
ARR: The player said "I don't know. I didn't need the language requirement. I just took the class."
Dr. Emetic: I think I know what your question is going to be.
ARR: No doubt. The four Ojibwe courses this player took would, presumably, have earned him 12 academic credits. His grades would have given him an "honors" level performance in those courses.
So: the question. Does the NCAA's APR scheme award this player the same number of points as he would have gotten if, for instance, he'd been an accomplished Latinist taking courses in Virgil or Cicero or Tacitus?
Dr. Emetic: Look, can't you get it through your head that the APR measures PROGRESS and not the CONTENT of an individual's education. How hard is that to understand?
ARR: (gently) Calm down, Dr. E. We mean no harm. There was a point to our last example. Don't you realize that this player who got an A-minus average in four Ojibwe course DIDN'T MAKE ANY PROGRESS IN LEARNING OJIBWE? So how can you pretend that the APR "measures progress"?
Dr. Emetic: (truculently) How do you know the player didn't make progress in Ojibwe?
ARR: (patiently) Because the player said that he didn't even understand what Ojibwe was. Other players, asked to say something in Ojibwe, couldn't come up with a single word or phrase in the language. Yet some of them had taken two or three courses and gotten A's or B's. Do you honestly want to call that "progress"?
Dr. Emetic: Why do you want to go on about this Ojibwe business? What does it have to do with Div IA sports, anyway?
ARR: We're glad you asked. As it happens, we've just finished reading a terrific book about football at the University of Washington under the aegis of Richard McCormick and Barbara Hedges and Rick Neuheisel. It's called Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity. It's by Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry, two Seattle Times reporters. Like Jim Carty and his team at the Ann Arbor News and Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin at the Newark Star Ledger, they did a brilliant job of investigative reporting to rip away the veil of deceit that so commonly hides Div IA athletics from public view.
Dr. Emetic: (intrigued) And what does this have to do with language study? With the APR?
ARR: Well, an interesting aspect of the UW football story -- in between the allegations of rape and stories about assault, drugs, "football friendly" prosecutors and judges who kept giving suspended sentences for crimes that would have sent ordinary citizens to jail -- is that it had what might be called an Ojibwe element. Except that the Ojibwe course at UW was Swahili.
Dr. Emetic: Golly. I was president of UW, you know.
ARR: (drily) We know.
Dr. Emetic: Nobody ever said anything about Swahili.
ARR: It might have been over by then. McCormick had been fired. Neuheisel, the football coach who presided over the UW football circus, had been fired. Hedges, the woman who hired Neuheisel, had been fired. By the time you got there, the boosters were baying for the blood of Tyrone Willingham, who had lost a lot of games.
Dr. Emetic: So what's the evidence that Swahili was to UW what Ojibwe is to Michigan?
ARR: We could give you a lot of statistics, but here's just one episode from the book:
Dr. Emetic: Son of a gun. That does sound like the Ojibwe thing.
ARR: We're glad you agree. Now the question: would your APR scheme award Williams exactly the same number of points that a serious UW student -- somebody, say, who had learned to read Greek or Latin, or had become a fluent speaker of French and German -- would have gotten for taking courses in those languages?
Dr. Emetic: (doggedly) The APR measures progress, not educational content.
ARR: Do you remember Katzenmoyer at Ohio State?
Dr. Emetic: The football player who stayed eligible by taking summer courses in Golf and "AIDS Awareness"?
ARR: That's the one. Dr. E., you're head of the NCAA. We understand that your job is to keep chanting the standard mantras and giving Powerpoint talks with APR charts, but do you really want to go on claiming that the APR is anything but an elaborate machinery of deceit?
Dr. Emetic: (stubbornly) The boosters believe it.
ARR: We beg your pardon. The boosters don't believe it. They believe in shouting it to the skies when their athletics department happens to be issued a favorable "APR" ranking, but they don't take it seriously among themselves. How stupid do you think they are?
Dr. Emetic: (reflectively) That's a question I've long asked myself. But look, your group is associated with Rutgers, isn't it? Didn't Rutgers just get a really high "APR" rating? Aren't they going on about "excellence in both academics and athletics." In fact, didn't I just see a press release from the Rutgers athletics department about this? Didn't your Governor there in New Jersey go on about how it was a "tremendous achievement"? (searches in his briefcase)Yes! Take a look:
ARR: Do you really not see why that's meaningless hype? We've given you a look at what goes on behind the scenes: "How many points for a three-point goal?", "Intensive Swahili," "independent study," "Golf" and "AIDs Awareness."
Dr. Emetic: But how do you know that's going on at Rutgers? You don't have any proof. And you can't get any proof. Why do you think your athletics department always talks about its reverence for the Buckley Amendment?
ARR: Well, sometimes things leak out. Often enough to support the suspicion that many of the "student athletes" included in Rutgers' "APR" ranking couldn't possibly be doing college-level work.
Dr. Emetic: (skeptically) Such as what?
ARR: Such as football players who have entered Rutgers with a combined SAT score below 800.
Dr. Emetic: I don't believe it. If you split that down the middle, it would come out to less than 400 points verbal, 400 points math. Nobody at that level could possibly do college-level work.
ARR: That's our point. Asking such a person to read Hobbes or Thoreau or J.S. Mill would be like asking someone who'd never had a violin lesson to play first violin in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Dr. Emetic: So how could anyone like that ever make it into Rutgers?
ARR: There are ways. In one case we know about the answer is that the player had grades purchased for $399 from a phony diploma mill in Florida. The story was in the New York Times.
Dr. Emetic: (suspiciously) What do you mean by "diploma mill"?
ARR: We mean a storefront operation with no classes and and no teachers and no educational accreditation. According to the New York Times, it essentially awarded students credits and high grades for copying answers in a "textbook" into blanks on exams. Or by having someone do it for them.
Dr. Emetic: And Rutgers had no qualms about admitting this individual as a freshman?
ARR: Originally, no. But when the NY Times story broke, they got embarrassed and made him sit out a year before joining the team.
Dr. Emetic: He went on to play for Rutgers?
ARR: He was on the starting team.
Dr. Emetic: I'm beginning to understand your point. It's that the grades and credits of "student athletes" like this have to have been included in that "APR" ranking that Rutgers is bragging about?
Dr. Emetic: But wait a minute! How do you know that by his senior year this same individual wasn't reading J.S. Mill's On Liberty and Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and taking courses in Byzantine history and learning Greek?
ARR: After coming in with SATs that put him in the bottom 9% nationally and fraudulent credits supplied by a storefront diploma mill? While spending 50 hours a week on the practice field and weight rooms and watching game films? While making frequent trips away from campus?
Dr. Emetic: Goodness. I see your point. You think that stories like this have to be about Ojibwe and Swahili and Independent Studies with "jocksniffer" faculty members and "How many points for a 3-point goal?" You think it's a purely logical inference. So: is there nothing that could convince you that the "APR" was a real measure of academic performance?
ARR: Just one thing.
Dr. Emetic: And that is?
ARR: If the Athletics Department blanked out players' names and released the transcripts of everyone counted in their "APR" ranking. If we could see proof that everyone on the football team was taking courses in Byzantine history and pre-Socratic philosophy and Multivariable Calculus, we'd be ready to join in the celebration.
Dr. Emetic: And until then?
ARR: Until then, we're going to go on regarding the Rutgers football franchise as driving top students away from Rutgers and attracting academically substandard "party animals" who drag the university down. We're going to go on regarding commercialized Div IA sports as a cancer on American higher education. And we're going to go on regarding the NCAA, Dr. Emetic, as promoting its metastasis. We hope you enjoy your years on the job.