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The Rules of the Game

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Wa-hoo, the Virginia men's basketball team made the NCAA Tournament and Friday will play Florida, a team many say could end March Madness for the Cavaliers. Yet even if they pass the Gators, a new study shows our players will face a tougher opponent in May, with exams they slam-flunk.

As if basketball needed more statistics, the NCAA collects data on Graduation Success Rates (GSR) and Academic Progress Rates (APR) for college athletes and programs. These metrics together gauge retention and graduation rates while making allowances for athletic-specific scenarios such as transferring or going professional.

For teams in this year's tournament, yesterday's report "Keeping Score When It Counts: Graduation Success and Academic Progress Rates for the 2012 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament Teams" gave the graduation box score. The NCAA collects and uses data such as this for academic enforcement. Penalties have thus far largely consisted of admonitions, but the NCAA has also revoked scholarships. And beginning next year, a team's poor APR performance means it would be disallowed from the tournament, which means madness.

Let's line up the arguments here. Those who favor such regulations see the free passes players get and call foul. Or they think graduating is in an athlete's best interest, even if it is achieved using a misguided policy in which the NCAA calls the shots.

Most of these points miss, leaving hoop-holes. Athletes, like many others, are going to college for a career and not an education, and by this logic the gym is their library, where they test themselves and study the game. Academic requirements or incentives are not misplaced altogether. But emphasizing team graduation rates enables players to take no-look lectures and coaches to recruit career benchwarmers who get only to play grade point guard. Not to mention that prospects, especially those seeking the mandatory one year out of high school before professionalizing, will go to schools with good gyms where the academic bar is set low. The feeling is that many players already go to certain schools for this reason.

And yet the Virginia men's basketball team's graduation rate is terrible: 50 percent overall, 33 percent for African-Americans. Let's not be selfish -- everyone gets an assist in the blame. In fact, the NCAA restrictions coming in to play next year would ban teams holding a four-year APR below 930, which is equal to the 50 percent graduation rate our men's team now champions. But the answer does not come from punishments which, after the fact, would ban an upcoming team full of aspiration for how their predecessors failed them. We ought to understand the players' positions and, like a good coach, draw up strategies which get the best out of everyone's talent with what they are capable of.

Advisors need to go one-on-one with athletes to make sure they are succeeding and not be intimidated if arbitrary graduation rate requirements guard the lane to learning. Meanwhile, teams should not fret about being banned from the tournament, which is only good on paper and always better on television.