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Duncan Calls for More Scrutiny of Coaching Salaries

In what has become as much of a March tradition as the NCAA Tournament itself, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used the start of March Madness to speak out about the ills of college athletics in their current state. For a couple of years, the focus was on graduation rates and postseason access. With that issue now “solved”, Duncan turned his attention to coaching salaries in a USA Today od-ed.

We are not suggesting any regulatory scheme for capping or restricting coaches’ compensation. Nor can we specify the balance between athletic and academic spending that, to paraphrase the Goldilocks principle, is just right. What we can say is that this balance is plainly out-of-whack with the educational mission of many Division I universities.

Among the solutions Duncan proposes are greater oversight of coaching contracts by governing boards; clawback provisions for coaches who cheat or have poor graduation rates than leave the school; contract terms that prevent coaches from receiving bonuses if academic performance is too low; and more parity between academic and athletic bonuses.

The issue is the same as it has been since the introduction of the Academic Progress Rate: what should be incentivized? Like democracy, the APR is the worst of all system, except for all the others. It has enormous advantages over the federal graduation rate and the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate in terms of timeliness and sets a very reasonable bar for coaches and athletic departments to meet.

But being both the state-of-the-art and being inherently limited means the APR is asked to do things it was never intended or designed to do. Any graduation or academic progress rate only tracks objective measures like graduation, eligibility, or retention. Ultimately the job of a university is to educate, not just to hit those benchmarks.

The APR, Federal Graduation Rate, and GSR should not be the end-game for tracking student-athlete academic success. At some point clustering needs to be addressed and the NCAA needs to develop a system for allowing its members to do remediation with athletes while not permitting them to leave the same group of athletes behind. At the same time, there needs to be less focus on the stick and more work developing possible carrots.

Increasing the rewards and penalties tied to academics will cause a host of unintended but not unforeseeable consequences. Academic fraud, clustering (if it is permitted), and accounting tricks could all potentially increase. But like the NCAA’s halting push for increased enforcement and deregulation, if academics are important than it is worth making them a priority and eliminating less important things the NCAA does to make room.

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