UAB Fines Athletes to Improve Academic Standards; Slippery Slope?

Posted by Chris Johnson on August 21st, 2012

Christopher Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Earlier this year, Connecticut was one of 10 college basketball teams to receive a one-year postseason ban for not meeting the NCAA’s minimum four-year Academic Progress Rate (APR) threshold of 900. The Huskies filed an appeal, arguing that recent reforms had produced increased scores over the past two years. In the end, though, the NCAA stuck to its guns and reaffirmed its initial ruling. And so it was that UConn – a program that has experienced a rapid rise into the college hoops elite under coach Jim Calhoun – just one and a half years removed from winning a national championship, was banned from the sport’s pre-eminent postseason tournament. The Huskies probably won’t feel any measurable downturn in recruiting success or national cachet as a result, but the sentencing proved that even the sport’s marquee brands are vulnerable to the NCAA’s increased academic standards.

After struggling to keep up with the NCAA’s APR standards, UAB is going new lengths to improve its academic standing in the coming years.

A one-year postseason ban in men’s basketball doesn’t come close to the sort of multi-faceted, crippling atom bomb the NCAA dropped on Penn State.  Alabama-Birmingham is nonetheless determined to avoid a UConn-esque fate, and it’s adopting a unique approach to work toward that end. The program has endured a rough history of keeping up with the NCAA’s academic reforms. During the last measured four-year APR period (2003-07), UAB had six teams fail to meet the minimum mark and was the second-most penalized program in the nation for its academic shortcomings. With that spotty track record, it comes as no surprise that the Blazers are seeking new ways to enforce academic responsibility. In a formal Q & A with the Birmingham News, athletic director Brian Mackin outlined his plan to keep UAB’s various teams above the APR cutline. Along with increased academic support, study time and access to student-athlete advisors, UAB has laced its academic compliance code with monetary disincentives.

Q. What steps do you take to keep the APR scores where they are and keep them from being a problem again?

A. I think recruiting is the No. 1 thing. It all starts with recruiting the right student-athlete that can be successful at UAB. We also have academic support in place. We have tutors, mentors, study hall, advisor meetings for all of our student-athletes. We actually smother them with academic support and hold each one of them accountable. We have a penalty structure in place that is very tough if they don’t complete their requirements. Tutor misses are $10 per unexcused miss. If you exceed the number of tutoring or mentor misses, it could result in a game suspension or taking away ticket privileges.

The immediate reaction – after a brief tip of the cap to Mackin’s ingenuity – was to question the legality of imposing fines on students for missed academic work. After all, student-athletes are by definition amateurs, meaning that they can’t receive any additional financial compensation beyond incidentals. So it seemed suspicious that school officials at UAB felt they had the legal wherewithal to take their money. In the interest of finding the most thorough explanation for UAB’s policy, I went to John Infante, the web’s resident expert on all things NCAA and author of the renowned Bylaw Blog. Turns out, the Blazers are completely within bounds. In an email, Infante says:

There’s no rule against it. The university would have to approve it because you would be charging student accounts. That would be how it is done: if an athlete misses a tutor session, they would charge the student account. If the athlete receives a scholarship check, it would be reduced by those (and other) outstanding charges. If they don’t, then they would have an outstanding charge that would prevent them from registering or getting a diploma if they don’t take care of it. Other schools have done similar things. Charge for missed tutor sessions, missed rehab or doctor appointments, not completing paperwork on time or things like that.

There’s nothing wrong with docking student-athletes for academic lapses, and Mackin has clearly discovered a rare way to maneuver that prerogative to his advantage: an underperforming athletic program – academically, on the playing fields/courts, or otherwise – reflects poorly on the athletic director. If he can use that power to improve his program’s reputation, well, so be it. His actions makes absolute sense. They also raise the question of just how far ($10? $100? $1,000?) and in what areas a student-account fine can be used to induce a desired outcome. Since there are no limits (besides the university’s required approval) on using a student-athletes’ student account just like any other bank account – debts must be paid, charges must be met, etc. – the program conceivably could use its power to remove funds for missed practices, poor athletic performance and other athletic-related causes. The possibility exists that coaches could invoke financial provocations to incentivize improved individual performance in a system resembling the NFL and NBA’s incentive-laden contract structure, where players are paid extra for reaching specified statistical milestones and honorary recognitions. Only in the collegiate model, student-athletes would merely be punished, not rewarded, for failing to meet predetermined benchmarks. For me, the only area in which coaches and administration could reasonably employ financial motivation is mandatory team practices and meetings. Otherwise you run the risk of creating a professional model where money takes center stage in a carrot-and-stick enforcement structure.

This privilege has yet to be exploited to that extent and it’s highly unlikely that any university would ever sign off on a financial-intertwined system. UAB’s case reminded us that the latent powers exist for the implementation of such a system and that programs are willing to plumb the depths of the NCAA’s legislative canon to improve their student-athletes’ scholastic endeavors in preparation for the increasingly onerous academic climate. UAB is learning from experience and working to erase bad habits, and it’s doing so rather unconventionally. The NCAA can’t find fault with that, even if it’s choosing a process with dangerous implications.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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