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NCAA (sorta) makes progress

End Zone



Just a guess, but you probably didn't notice the headline last week out of Indianapolis. Competing against World Series drama and midseason football, the topic of NCAA scholarship reform for college athletics had no chance of attracting much coverage.

Then again, in some places, it was a big deal. Like at the University of Connecticut, whose men's basketball program is coming off its latest national championship, and views playing in the NCAA Tournament as an annual guarantee.

After the decision to make big changes in scholarship amounts and expectations, the folks at UConn discovered that their Huskies could be in danger of becoming ineligible for the 2013 edition of March Madness, when the new rules come into play. That's a big story in Connecticut, and similar threats could emerge around the nation for other schools that haven't cared enough about athletes finishing their degrees. You have to wonder about the "academic progress rate" for football players at LSU and Alabama, among others.

OK, let's back up. At their recent meeting, the NCAA members' presidents addressed two major issues:

• They approved schools providing an optional benefit of $2,000 per scholarship-athlete, each school year, for expenses beyond the typical tuition, books, room and board, and other fees. That's meant to cover incidental expenses, from gas in the car to fast food.

• NCAA schools also must follow stricter rules, from graduation rates to grade-point averages, or face not being eligible for postseason games and tournaments. The phase-in starts in 2012-2013, and by the third year of implementation, each program must have a 50 percent graduation rate to qualify for bowl games (football) or playoff tournaments (basketball and other sports).

Adding $2,000 for each athlete might stop underhanded tactics that have provided athletes more spending money. From coast to coast, there are countless stories of athletes receiving money (often anonymously, as in unmarked envelopes or handshakes with strangers) outside the rules.

The tough part of this change is that while it's fair to the athletes, it's also biased in favor of the big-money programs. Every NCAA school must follow Title IX guidelines, which means the same amount going to male and female athletes. So the football players at Texas, Ohio State and Oregon might get $2,000 each, but the same will go for volleyball, softball and other scholarship sports for women.

Those prominent schools with their mega-millions will have no trouble paying the benefit, while schools in the middle class (such as the Mountain West Conference) might. And that'll widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Around here, it might be hard to notice any difference. Air Force cadets already receive extra pay (an exception to NCAA rules) as part of their year-round military commitment, which continues year-round in preparation for service beyond graduation. The service academies will have no trouble with the tougher academic rules, because they already have sufficient graduation rates and admission standards.

At the University of Colorado, the money part shouldn't be a problem, thanks to TV revenues that will come in the Pacific 12 Conference. But it might be more difficult for Colorado State and Wyoming, which often try to recruit the same athletes. If, for example, CSU or Wyoming can't guarantee that extra $2,000 for a football or volleyball recruit, and another school such as CU can, that might sway a decision.

Another possible unintended consequence: We had been hearing that Colorado might consider adding more sports, such as baseball for men and softball for women, as a result of joining the Pac-12. But having to pay $2,000 more to each athlete in the existing sports likely will make it difficult to justify adding more.

I did have to chuckle at NCAA President Mark Emmert's comment to media after the reforms were approved, saying, "They represent a return to and a focus on values that are at the core of what intercollegiate athletics are all about."

Let's not go that far, please. Let's just say these changes are overdue, and that it'll be fun to watch some big-time football and basketball programs squirm as they have to worry more about academics in years to come.

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