The Board of Directors of the Division I programs of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body for most college sports programs, approved a set of new rules that could impact non-major institutions, including the nation’s historically Black colleges. Among the new rules are a $2000 “stipend” that can cover the cost of living for student-athletes, an increase in the required grade-point-average for eligibility, allowing multi-year scholarships, and an increase in the four year Academic Progress Rate (APR) for teams that will determine postseason eligibility for bowl games and tournaments. The eligibility requirements will begin phasing in with the 2012-2013 academic year.
The new rules are being put forth during a period of uncertainty and turmoil in college sports. Many of the Division I conferences are realigning and there is a fierce battle underway to recruit major college programs to the new alignments. While the ground literally shifts in college sports, driven principally by the big money football programs at major Division I schools, another debate concerning the treatment of student athletes is taking shape. As many programs reap millions of dollars in television revenue, ticket sales and paraphernalia, there is a growing chorus of critics who are demanding some level of “compensation” for college athletes. The adoption of a stipend would return a benefit that once existed prior to 1972 and put athletic scholarships in line with academic scholarships that traditionally include a stipend to cover living expenses. The issue has been much debated and the proposed $2,000, though lower than some have suggested, is an acknowledgment of the need to fix a system that habitually exploits student-athletes. With many cases of NCAA sanctions for rule infractions related to athletes receiving payments under the table, the implementation of a stipend is an effort to stymie such arrangements and give student-athletes a modicum of financial assistance to make ends meet while enrolled in school.
One of the challenges facing athletic programs at historically Black colleges (HBCUs) is how to remain competitive as the cost of operating a Division I program has increased significantly and Black athletes have more options when considering which college to attend. When Jim Crow made Black colleges the only option for Black students, HBCU’s fielded powerful teams chock full with legendary talent. As predominantly white institutions integrated their campuses, these schools began to draw away Black athletes in droves and today most Black colleges are the second and third option for young people. There result has been the downward spiral of some Black college programs. Making matters worse has been the significant costs involved in the development of quality athletic facilities, marketing, travel, and recruitment that further impedes the ability of most HBCUs, particularly those in Division I, to maintain parity. Even such storied athletic programs as schools such as Grambling State University, Florida A&M University, Morgan State University, Jackson State University and Southern University are mere shadows of their former success as white colleges siphon talent, and the economics of big time college athletics make it virtually impossible for HBCU’s to compete with stadiums that rival NFL venues, basketball arenas that are as glitzy as NBA home courts, and second-tier sports that benefit from the largesse of college football on white campuses. In many ways, Jim Crow is accepted in college sports with HBCU’s operating as supposedly “equal but separate.”
On face value each of the new rules appears philosophically aligned with the goal of enhancing the student-athlete experience and fostering an environment that enables college completion. However, the unique circumstances that make HBCU’s irreplaceable may clash with the well intentioned rule changes adopted by the Division I Board. The $2,000 stipend would be a welcome change for most HBCU athletes but it could be cost-prohibitive for many HBCUs that are cash-strapped; and the requirement under Title IX that women athletes receive equal treatment, adds an additional expense upon schools. By increasing the four year Academic Progress Rate for teams, some HBCUs might be disadvantaged simply because these campuses traditionally accept many students who require remedial help due to their matriculation in failing public school districts. The APR is set to be elevated from 900 to 934. To gain access to post-season play in 2012-13 and 2013-14 teams must achieve a 900 multi-year APR or a 930 average over the two most recent years. In 2015-16 the 930 APR becomes the benchmark. The goal of this rule change is honorable and affirms the “academic” element in collegiate sports, but some HBCUs might be challenged to meet this new standard. Likewise raising the qualifying GPA for eligibility for incoming freshmen and junior college transfers, the NCAA is sending an appropriate message to students that academics remains the core “business” of a college. The new rule raises the required GPA from 2.0 to 2.3 for incoming freshman and requires they complete 10 core courses before their senior year. The rule change also raises the required GPA from 2.0 to 2.5 for junior college transfers and limits to two the number of physical education courses JUCO transfers count toward their eligibility.
As the major college conferences continue to realign, it remains to be seen how HBCUs will respond to the new eligibility requirements and whether these schools will seek alternative means to remain competitive on the playing field.