You can be pro-union or anti-union in college sports.
You can advocate for paying the players or rail against paying the players.
You can cheer for Ed O’Bannon in his lawsuit vs. the NCAA or hope it ultimately fails.
But everyone should be on the same side of this issue: college athletes need to be actual students who are making progress toward graduation. If there is no academic foundation behind college sports, then the entire enterprise should be separated from higher education once and for all. And since no fans really want to see that happen, they should expect their schools to motivate, inspire and sometimes even demand athletes to succeed academically.
Which is why Wednesday is an unequivocally shameful day for Oklahoma State.
The latest NCAA Academic Progress Rate scores were released, and the Cowboys football program was short of the necessary 930 average score over four years. They were barely short, a fraction of a point. As if that matters when attempting to reach the modest benchmark of a 50 percent success rate in terms of being on track to graduate.
If such a pedestrian standard can't be reached, the school isn’t doing its job.
NCAA sanctions called for a four-hour reduction in practice time per week during the 2014 season, in order for the football players to devote more time to academics. The school appealed that finding and had the penalty downsized to a two-hour reduction per week, according to the Tulsa World, because the football program's APR scores are trending upward during the two most recent years of reporting (2011-12 and 2012-13).
To satisfy the penalty, USA Today reported that Oklahoma State likely will cancel its customary brief Sunday workouts. That may not be a significant loss for the Cowboys, but no football coach likes to give away practice time. They consider every minute of in-season preparation to be as vital as oxygen itself.
In an NCAA penalty structure that so often seems to miss the mark, practice reductions hit home. They are proper and meaningful sanctions for academic failings, because those two hours (at least in theory) can be directly transferred from sport to studying. We hear endless tales of the time demands on college athletes – so if they’re failing to handle those demands, reduce them in order to enhance the greater mission.
There are many Division I schools that were penalized by the NCAA on Wednesday, including the usual array of underfunded, low-DI, Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Seventeen football and men’s basketball programs were given a one-year postseason ban, including FBS football programs UNLV and Idaho and FBS basketball program San Jose State.
Those penalties are more severe than what Oklahoma State incurred. But no school should feel more embarrassed than OSU. It’s not as bad as Connecticut men’s basketball being banned from the 2013 NCAA tournament – which should indelibly taint Jim Calhoun's legacy – but it's the most inexcusable result among the 2014 data.
With an athletic budget that Sports Business Daily identified in 2011 as one of fastest growing in the nation, Oklahoma State has all the resources. It has a billionaire benefactor in T. Boone Pickens, who has basically funded his own athletic fiefdom. Success on the field has grown at a corresponding rate, with eight straight winning seasons and six straight years above .500 in Big 12 play.
And there has been no coaching turnover in recent years, which is often cited as a reason for high turnover and poor academic performance. Mike Gundy is heading into his 10th year as the boss in Stillwater.
So there is no justifiable rationale for academically underachieving to the extent that the program is sanctioned. Either Oklahoma State has recruited students who cannot succeed at a school not exactly renowned for academic rigor, or it has permitted an academically indifferent culture to thrive.
On an APR teleconference Wednesday, I asked NCAA president Mark Emmert if, in general, there is any good excuse for a school from a "power conference" to be sanctioned for academic underperformance. I didn't mention any school by name.
"That’s the appropriate question," Emmert said. "… There really isn’t a good excuse."
Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chair of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance, echoed Emmert’s sentiments.
"The more resources you have," Harrison said, "the more you should be able to devote to your people to succeed."
Oklahoma State put out a release Wednesday that quoted athletic director Mike Holder saying, "We are taking steps to ensure that our APR numbers improve moving forward. We are accountable for what we do and ultimately, we are here to serve our student-athletes and do our best to keep them on track to be lifelong contributors to society."
There was no quote from Gundy, who has grown increasingly imperious as his tenure has lengthened and win-loss record has improved.
Hopefully the school will respond with a more honest introspection than the last time it came under national scrutiny. When Sports Illustrated published a multi-part series last September on a panoply of problems in Oklahoma State football – academic shenanigans, paying players, drugs, etc. – the response was to circle the wagons and attack the messenger more than anything else. While there were elements in SI’s series that deserved to be questioned, the school appeared largely uninterested in addressing the substance of the reporting.
Defensive denial isn’t the recommended approach here. Oklahoma State should wear its shame, and do something about it.
In the ceaseless debate over college sports’ soul, there is no gray area when it comes to academics. Either schools are doing the right thing and helping athletes move toward graduation, or they are failing them.