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The Competitive Imbalance of Elderly Babysitters

Posted on February 14, 2011

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an article about the University of Kansas' Athletics Department hiring senior citizens to monitor student-athletes' class attendance. Most everyone got caught up in the absurdity of old people chasing around young student-athletes. I was surprised that Kansas Athletics would open up to the WSJ, given that most of 2010 found Kansas over-exposed. But I think we all missed the bigger picture: Kansas athletics (and probably every school with a significant athletics department) spends money to ensure their kids go to class.

Re-read the WSJ article with money on your mind (like Flo Rida):

Schools have long enlisted other students to help keep tabs on their scholarship athletes, who are naturally tempted to skip class from time to time to catch up on the sleep they miss practicing, training and traveling for far-away, late-night games. Because college professors rarely grade based on attendance and can't be bothered to call the roll in big lecture halls, athletic departments often pay students a modest hourly wage to do the dirty work instead. Maryland has been using student "class checkers" for decades; Texas A&M, Georgia and Wisconsin have invested in similar class-checking operations.


Eight years ago, associate athletic director Paul Buskirk, who heads the school's Student-Athlete Support Services unit, hired a retired police officer and former Marine named Don Gardner to help oversee the class-checking operation and recruit a few more senior citizens to join. ...

The WSJ article doesn't list the actual number of class checkers on Kansas Athletics' payroll. If you've got a workforce large enough to track the hundreds of student-athletes under scholarship every school day, the operational cost has to be more than a couple of basketball tickets per senior citizen. Then again, maybe the class checkers don't care about Olympic sports: The article also focuses on the checkers' exploits with football and men's basketball student-athletes, without mentioning any issues with athletes of other sports or with women athletes. It wouldn't surprise me that Kansas's "brigade" of class checkers focus on just those two major sports, considering football and men's basketball comprise of nearly 42% of all 137 sports programs currently subject to penalties due to low APR scores. (In fact, there are more non-Division-I schools on this penalty list than Division-I schools.)

Of those 57 football and men's basketball programs currently under APR penalties, only one is from a BCS school (Colorado's Men's BBall). The NCAA "takes into account school resource levels when determining APR penalties" but doesn't seem to have any solution to help prevent APR penalties. In fact the NCAA solution for missing the APR baseline is allowing waver-based wiggle-room -- especially the schools that can spend money. From a 2008 post on MGoBlog's old archive (emphasis mine):

This waiver business is arbitrary and ripe for exploitation. Bruce Feldman points out this article in the State that breaks down the 492 programs that fell short of the APR minimum but did not get dinged. 315 programs avoided penalties because they have no money or did better than their student body at large; 253 of these avoided penalties because no one left ineligible. But then there are the 66 programs, including those from Ohio State, Purdue, Indiana, South Florida, Oregon, and South Carolina, that got waivers because they promised to do better, ie: spend more. This can't be done by smaller programs and we should have little sympathy for the pleas of big schools that fall below the minimum. Oregon was at 921 with all of Phil Knight's money: dock them the two or three scholarships. And how the hell did Arizona (APR 902, worst in the BCS) get off this year after getting hit last year?

The schools themselves set minimums for academic progress and the APR gives them a strong incentive to give students the most remedial classes they can find. End result: the numbers go up but the amount of education does not. The NCAA should institute an exit exam for revenue sports that tests basic reading comprehension and math skills and the like.

Of those teams who had conditional waivers from 2008-09, only two failed to complete the requirements of the waiver. Both are non-BCS schools.

"[The NCAA wants to] fully embed the expectations of academic success into the intercollegiate culture, so we don't have to talk about it as something new but something as utterly assumed," NCAA President Mark Emmert said in this November 2010 Wall Street Journal video interview. Yet only 14 athletic programs made a profit and the NCAA is not making it rain across every school. That leads non-BCS schools at an academic disadvantage AND a competitive disadvantage against BCS schools who somehow don't make money yet can pay for elderly babysitters. From the aforementioned WSJ article:

Mr. Buskirk says class checking is "not my first choice for how I would spend my resources" but adds that it's necessary because "19-year-olds don't always make the best decisions."

When you're one of the 14 fortunate programs to be making a profit in NCAA Athletics, you can afford to keep making your students go to class.

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