If you want an in-depth dissection of the NCAA's "Academic Progress Rate" for tracking athletes' performance in the classroom, you should probably go straight to the source. For our purposes, you only need to know this: As of today, the APR officially moved from the realm of "Math Wonks Only" into the consciousness of the average fan when the NCAA's Board of Directors voted to use the scores as a minimum requirement for bowl eligibility:
Less than 24 hours after emerging from a landmark Presidential retreat, the Division I Board of Directors unanimously approved the concept of increasing the required academic performance of all teams and mandated that teams must meet those requirements in order to participate in any NCAA-sponsored championship or football bowl game.
NCAA President Mark Emmert touted the change as proof of the NCAA's commitment to the academic success of all student-athletes. "This is about the academic performance of all of our students in all of our sports. This is about the academic expectations we have for all of our student-athletes."
The board voted to raise the Academic Progress Rate benchmark from 900 to 930 and supported a penalty structure that will require teams to earn at least a 930 four-year, rolling APR in order to participate in postseason competition.
There you have it: No books, no bowl. As of now, there's no specific timeline for implementing the plan, which probably won't be finalized until October. Officials said in a press conference there will likely be a three-to-five-year window to allow schools to prepare for the tougher standards.
No, they're not trying to engineer a BCS Championship Game between Vanderbilt and Northwestern, or to force Alabama and Florida State to start recruiting valedictorians. As benchmarks go, frankly this one is kind of soft: Of the 64 Division I-A/Bowl Subdivision schools that appeared in a bowl game last season, only eight of them — Louisville, UTEP, Tulsa, Michigan, Southern Miss, BYU, Maryland and N.C. State — turned in an APR score below 930 between the 2006-07 and 2009-10 academic years, according to the NCAA's database. Among the "Big Six" BCS conferences, the SEC had exactly zero schools below the new benchmark in that four-year window, and the ACC (Maryland), Big Ten (Michigan), Big 12 (Colorado), Pac-10 (Washington State) and Big East (Louisville) had just one apiece. Altogether, only 17 of 120 FBS schools turned in an average APR score below 930 between 2006 and 2010, and fully half of that group had a score above 925.
Scores have trended upward the last few years, in general, as athletic and compliance departments have responded to the realities of the requirements, and the sanctions that accompany them. But you don't have to look at the scores long to figure out that they're a much greater threat to smaller programs that can't afford the bureaucratic and academic resources than they are to the behemoths — the only "Big Six" programs hit with APR-mandated scholarship losses in football over the last four-year cycle are Kansas (2006-07), Colorado (2008-09), Ole Miss (2008-09) and Maryland (2009-10). In the non-major leagues, that list includes Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Hawaii, Idaho, Kent State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, North Texas, San Diego State, San Jose State, Temple, Toledo, UAB, UNLV and UTEP, most of them incurring penalties on more than one occasion. These are the schools that are more likely to be cut off from the postseason by academics — not because they're recruiting dumber players, but because they don't have the support staff to constantly look over players' shoulders and keep them on track at every turn.
So you might dub the new requirement "He who pays, plays." But then, there's nothing really new about that at all.