GWEN IFILL: It's called "March Madness," an annual ritual of feverish college basketball second only to the Super Bowl in the national sports pantheon. But the young men and women who will take to courts all over the nation in the next few weeks are under new scrutiny, as questions are raised about how many of these athletes can pass muster as students.
One watchdog group, known as the Knight Commission, looked at academic performance of the NCAA teams participating in the March tournaments. Nearly one-third of them -- 20 out of the 65 men's teams -- failed to graduate 30 percent of their players within six years. Two teams-- Louisiana State and the University of Minnesota -- failed to graduate even one men's basketball player over the four-year period reviewed. Women's programs fared better. More than 90 percent of women's teams graduated at least half of their players.
The NCAA is taking some steps to link academic performance more closely to athletic prowess. Part of the new changes announced last month would force athletes to work toward a degree by revoking their scholarships. The goal: To increase to 50 percent the number of eligible athletes who graduate within six years. And for the first time in NCAA history, teams with athletes falling below the new standards would be penalized.
According to the NCAA, about half of the nation's 328 Division I schools have at least one team facing sanctions. The worst academically performing teams were men's basketball, baseball and football. The NCAA said penalties go into effect this December.
GWEN IFILL: So, will these changes improve the academic performance of student athletes? For that we turn to Walter Harrison, the chairman of the NCAA Committee that drew up the standards changes. He's the president of the University of Hartford. Todd Turner, athletic director at the University of Washington; his school just received one of the top four seeds in the NCAA Men's basketball tournament. And Murray Sperber, a professor emeritus at Indiana University, is the author of "Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education."
Walter Harrison, what do you make of the shortcomings that your report has exposed?
WALTER HARRISON: Oh, I think the academic success of student athletes around the country has been a black eye for college athletics for some time. And I think the program that we've adopted will go a long way toward improving that.
GWEN IFILL: And tell us a little bit about why the solutions that you propose will work.
WALTER HARRISON: We think these are very stern, but fair penalties for teams to have to pay if they fall below a certain rate. And we think that the academic performance rate as a term-by-term, year-by-year rate is an accurate and timely way to assess how teams are doing.
GWEN IFILL: Todd Turner, you work on a college campus as well running the athletics department. To what do you attribute this incredible gap between what student athletes do as students and what they do as athletes?
TODD TURNER: Well, student athletes have a lot of challenges dealing with both their time and where they spend a lot of their personal focus. Also I think in times...over time, you've seen some lack of commitment on the part of coaches and athletics administrators in trying to help our students be successful in the classroom as well as on the floor or on the playing field.
These new measurements will change that environment. This is the first time that I'm aware of that the NCAA has assigned any kind of competitive penalty to the lack of academic progress or academic success on the part of students. It will change the culture.
GWEN IFILL: Tell me about how it will change the culture at the University of Washington where as I understand it, the men's basketball team ranked somewhere in the bottom 20th percentile in this latest ranking.
TODD TURNER: I think that without question, you'll find our coaches and our student athletes pay more attention to how they're doing at any given point in time because at the end of the day if they don't perform well, (a), they won't be able to play. And secondly, we would lose scholarship opportunities in the future.
There are some issues about the Academic Progress Rate that are still being refined and I think once they are refined, and Dr. Harrison's group is working on that, will not be as difficult for a school like Washington. We're very close to where we need to be and I think as we refine this process you'll see us being above that line and in a position where our student athletes will not be penalized.
GWEN IFILL: What do you mean by "refined"? Give me an example.
TODD TURNER: Well, there's some administrative adjustments that the NCAA is looking at now with this new Academic Progress Rate. I'll give you an example. At the University of Washington, we're one of the very few quarter schools in America. And there is an adjustment that has been made statistically to take into account differences on a quarter-school campus.
We have some issues with that. And the NCAA rightfully is going to study that, and Dr. Harrison's committee is at present doing that very thing. And I think when that happens you'll see the University of Washington's numbers look a lot better.
GWEN IFILL: Murray Sperber, do you look at these kinds of reports and these kinds of recommendations and say, "Okay, we finally have the problem fixed?"
MURRAY SPERBER: No. I've studied the history of the NCAA and there've been many reforms that have come on their books and haven't really reformed anything. Often they've had huge loopholes in them or were ignored or not administered very well.
I do think if these are administered seriously, they could have a definite effect on college sports. I think many of the academic problems on the teams of many schools occur as a result of junior college transfers. And if I read the rules correctly -- and I've talked to Todd personally about this -- that would eliminate many junior college transfers.
Now, it would also eliminate the athletic prowess of many teams right now in the NCAA tournament. Many teams are there because of junior college transfers.
GWEN IFILL: When you say junior college transfers you're talking about high school students who for academic reasons couldn't get into these four-year schools and instead came in sideways by transferring from a two-year program?
MURRAY SPERBER: Right and also never really had to take the SATS. I mean, they didn't get good enough SAT scores to come in the front door, and they don't need any SAT scores to come in the side door.
Now, one of the things the NCAA has done is lower the bar on that front door. It's now easier for high school seniors to get in and be eligible than it was in the past. So one of the side effects of this whole rule might be a major boom in what's called Mickey Mouse curriculum and Mickey Mouse majors, because there's a premium on athletes getting through courses and getting the requirements in their majors.
Now I realize the faculty is at fault here, and I would really hope that they would police this much more seriously on their campuses, but also the schools were more transparent; and for instance, would make public things like what's the grade point average in Basket Weaving I? I mean, if everyone gets an A-plus and 22 of 25 students are athletic scholarship holders, that tells you something and the NCAA is not addressing this at all.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Walter Harrison about that. We're talking about Mickey Mouse majors here, whether it's basket weaving or Phys. Ed. How do you get around the fact that in order to meet the new standards, they just find an easier way to do it?
WALTER HARRISON: Well, I agree with Professor Sperber. I think the faculty is first and foremost responsible for the academic requirements of institutions. And I presume and have more confidence than he does in the faculty providing majors that have real clout. I believe... I'm not naive.
I believe there are institutions where there are some very easy majors that athletes are channeled into. I would call on the faculties of those institutions to toughen up those standards. I'm confident at my own institution that that's not the case. And I think that at many institutions it's not the case. So I think curriculum is best left to the individual universities, and specifically to the faculties of those universities. It's not an area that the NCAA should tread.
I do want to take exception to something Professor Sperber said. I think we've actually toughened requirements for high school. We have gotten rid of an absolute floor for SAT scores, but I am not particularly a big fan of SAT scores. What we've done in turn is to increase the number of core courses that are required in high school. And frankly, I have more confidence in that preparing students than I do SAT scores and measuring their ability.
GWEN IFILL: Todd Turner, I... it didn't escape my notice that so many of the sports where there seems to be the biggest gap between academic performance and athletic performance seem to be the revenue-producing sports, the basketball, the football programs. Is there... has there historically been that sort of link between lack of performance on one end and great performance or money-making ability on the other?
TODD TURNER: Well, unfortunately, probably so. I think one thing that I would like to mention is that I had the opportunity to chair a group that worked on designing the Academic Progress Rate and then handed that off to Dr. Harrison's committee.
Our group was driven by really one fault, and that was we wanted to ensure that whatever rules we came up with, they ensured that the young men and women that were participating-- no matter whether it be in football or tennis -- that they were, in fact, legitimate degree-pursuing students who were taking tests and doing research papers and going to class and doing their homework.
Historically, I think we have let that slip in some sports. But this new legislation gives us a chance for the first time to link academic performance to competitive opportunities, and I think that will change the culture.
GWEN IFILL: Have you allowed it to slip do you think at all because of the lucrative nature of the amount of money that's paid to put these sports on television, to build up the hoopla for something like March Madness?
TODD TURNER: Well, I wouldn't be... I mean, it's sort of naive to think that those two things are not linked. I would also think that athletics on a college campus has become the vehicle for many students to reach a professional sport opportunity level that pays them handsomely, and so they are enrolled in college for some of the wrong reasons; mostly to try to get a chance to be a pro.
If you were to ask the football players at the University of Washington as an example, when they come in the door how many thought they would play in the NFL, almost every one would raise their hand and say, "Yes, I will play there."
That's a tough dream, and one that's not realized very often. I think one of our responsibilities in our education is to be certain that the students are in fact prepared for life beyond the NFL or the NBA.
GWEN IFILL: Murray Sperber, I wonder if you can talk about that. Whose responsibility should this be? Should it be the athletic directors, should it be the faculty? Should it be the students themselves? Should someone be telling these students "No, you're probably not going to turn pro, you need to really focus on your studies?"
MURRAY SPERBER: Well, unfortunately in our society, because athletics have become so central and the lure of pro-sports and the huge amount of money that athletes make, their parents are telling them from very early ages, "Practice your sports."
I mean, often it's parents who are at fault. And they see an athletically talented kid as their lottery ticket, and such. So by the time that young man or woman gets to college, he or she is very primed for sports and unfortunately not that primed for higher education. So I think it's a very large cultural problem. I do think the NCAA could do much more on this issue.
As I said before, transparency of curriculum is not that big a deal. It would not violate any athlete's Buckley Amendment rights. I think it would shine a light, much more intense light, on these problems than the NCAA is doing with its very complicated APR ratings and all of that.
However, you're right to out point though that this is a huge cultural problem. And nobody singly is at fault. And, as I said before, faculty are at fault too in this whole operation.
GWEN IFILL: And Walter Harrison finally, if we have to look at these games as they unfold over the next couple of weeks in the basketball courts around the country, should we be looking at these students, these people playing, these athletes playing these games and think fully half of them are never going to get a college degree?
WALTER HARRISON: Well, it depends on what you're watching. I'm going to be watching women's basketball because the University of Hartford Hawks are in that tournament. And I think in that sport there's a far higher percentage getting degrees.
But as you said earlier, I think the sports we want to pay attention to are men's basketball, football and baseball, which are the three sports with the lowest graduation rates. And my view is that this series of reforms that we are implementing are going to make a vast improvement in that. There are lots of problems with this system, but fundamentally it's sound. I think this reform package is going to make a big difference in improving things.
GWEN IFILL: Walter Harrison, Todd Turner and Murray Sperber, thank you all very much.