Case: Revising College Sports Rankings (Part II)

“The Sign”

Sport: A Case by Case Basis | January Edition | Part IPart IIPart III

In Part I (“The Look-In”) of January’s Case, I opened with a simple question about college sports rankings: why don’t our college rankings assess performance of both student AND athlete?  I implored us as fans to take a fresh perspective on the college ranking system with the same type of performance expectations that we carry into other parts of our lives like our jobs or even our own collegiate experiences.   Why do we as employers want college graduates that are “well-rounded” but as fans we want our student-athletes to just be good athletes?  With that question in mind, in Part II I will explore the current landscape of collegiate performance rankings to uncover what we are and are not doing to equally  assess, recognize and promote both the on and off the field performance of our student-athletes.

First, let’s define our “off-the-field” metrics for comparison as the “on-the-field” metrics are pretty well understood.   For all of us non-athletes, there is one major dimension of our college experience that does (and should) define our relative performance:  academics.  I understand that there may be other important and equally critical elements of a college experience (e.g. networking, career exploration, etc), but academics is a core competency that we are able to a) evaluate with a variety of metrics, b) quantitatively compare performance across people and schools (albeit this can be skewed) and c) link performance with traits that are indicative of growth and future success off the field.    Thus, although there are several other factors in “off-the-field” performance, the measurability and maturity of academic performance metrics make it a good (and important) proxy indicator of “off-the-field” performance.   Now, how have these metrics been used in college rankings?

As far as evaluating the “student” part of the athlete, one of the most mature and longest running academic performance programs in the NCAA is the Academic All-Americans (AAA) program.  This program has been in existence since 1985 starting with the GTE Academic All-American and transitioning through several different sponsorships and, since 2011, it is now called the “Capital One Academic All-American” (or sometimes the CoSIDA Academic All-American).   Okay, initially it may sound like a great thing that this program has been in existence for nearly 30 years.  We have been recognizing the “student” side of the student-athlete so what’s this entire hullabaloo for?  Well, although this program has been fairly well constructed to recognize academic achievement amongst athletes, there are several major issues that come to view as you look a little closer.   As you start to compare this type of “off-the-field” performance recognition (the “student”) with the “on-the-field” performance (the “athlete”), these issues becoming glaring problems:

1.) The massive gap in terms of the history and the evolution of the Academic All-American (AAA) program as compared with more traditional “on-the-field” performance rankings.

Yes, as noted earlier, there is some great tradition in the Academic All-American program since its inception in 1985.   However, that sounds fairly adolescent compared to the AP Top 25 (started in 1934, 51 years earlier) or the Coaches/USA Today polls (started in 1950, 35 years earlier) or even the BCS Formula, which is amazingly only 13 years younger than the Academic All-American program.   Really?  We have devised a complex formula that utilizes sophisticated computer algorithms to compute an integrated ranking of collegiate football “on-the-field” performance and the only thing to happen to the Academic All-American program is that it changed sponsorship?   This highlights something beyond the inexcusable delay in finding an “off-the-field” performance ranking after creating an “on-the-field” ranking (i.e. 51 years) – that we (fans, media, colleges) have been putting in considerable effort to build, grow and evolve the on-the-field rankings while keeping the off-the-field rankings pretty much forgotten after establishing them.   And this isn’t just in college football.   In college basketball, we’ve concocted formulas like the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) to rank sports teams based upon a team’s wins and losses and its strength of schedule.  The RPI system has been in use in college basketball since 1981 (1981! 4 years earlier than the AAA program!) and has aided in the selecting and seeding of teams appearing in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  Heck, we’ve even invented concepts like “bracketology” before we’ve even taken a second to consider how to integrate academic performance with athletic performance in a complete college ranking.

2.) An unmistakable canyon between team representation in the “on-the-field” ranking (e.g. AP Top 25) versus in the “off-the-field” ranking (e.g. AAAs)

For this, let’s focus in on college football first and foremost because, as we all know, this is the sport that by far (BY FAR) generates the highest revenues.  And with more money, comes an increased desire for everyone involved to place winning above anything else (academics anyone?).   An analysis of this past year’s Top 25 rankings versus the AAA team provides further evidence to support this focus on winning on-the-field at the expense of off-the-field academics.  Below is a table that compares the team representation (by conference) in the final 2012 AP Top 25 poll versus on the 2012 Academic All-American first and second team (48 player slots in total):

Conference AP   Top 25 Team Representation (%   of total possible spots) AAA   Team Representation (%   of total possible spots – 48)
SEC 28% (7) 8.33% (4)
Big 10 16% (4) 18.75% (9)
Pac 12 12% (3) 4.17% (2)
Big 12 12% (3) 6.25% (3)
ACC 8% (2) 6.25% (3)

So, the power conference in college football, the best-of-the-best players in terms of “on-the-field” performance (SEC) actually has more teams in the top 25 than it has players in the top 48 slots for Academic All-Americans.  That is staggering.  And when you stretch it out to the other conference, you find that the trend isn’t just unique to the SEC.   In fact, the Big 10 was the only conference that considerably outperformed (by 5) its representation on the “on-the-field” ranking and that was with a few teams that you might not have realized even had football teams (e.g. Indiana and Northwestern…granted NW did finish in the top 25 this year for the first time in xx years).   This is statistical evidence of the current state of college athletics where, as I’ve stated many times, we have truly fallen out-of-balance between student and athlete.

Now, for those of you that might argue that college football is only a fraction of the total number of collegiate athletics and that I need to show these schools perform in other sports, let’s look a little deeper.   Your argument might hold more weight if all sports were created equal in terms of revenue –i.e. the driving factor behind just about any university, media outlet or coach (with very few exceptions) – but that just isn’t the case.  College football is the only Division 1 collegiate sports (besides basketball) that returns a positive profit margin (as depicted in the below excerpt from the NCAA’s 2009 financial report) AND that margin is more than 3 times the margin for basketball.  This isn’t a one year trend either – the report states that between 50 and 60% of football and men’s basketball programs have reported net generated revenues (surpluses) for each of the five years reported.

NCAA Revenue Report FY2009_v2

NCAA Publications

Money, in fact, is the number one culprit for why we’ve fallen out of balance in ranking and valuing on versus off the field performance.  For instance, if a team finishes with the most Academic All-Americans in a given year, they receive exactly $0 in bonus.  BUT if that same team finishes 7-5 and goes to a [you-pick-a-company-out-of-a-hat] bowl game then the school and the coach get several thousands of dollars in return.   Now, let’s say you’re a savvy business person or even just a college student trying to be “financially sound.”  This is a no-brainer decision.   Pour money into the program to get better athletes (not students, though if they’re smart then I guess that’s a plus) so you can win 6+ games and get the payoff from a bowl game.   The only problem here is that the student-athletes themselves suffer the consequences, albeit several years down the road when they tear their ACLs and are forced to retire from the NFL early and go broke soon after since they can’t find work without a college degree (or any type of meaningful education).   You think this sounds far-fetched or rare? Well, 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress; within five years of retirement, an estimated 60 percent of former NBA players are broke.   This was enough of a problem that ESPN has even put together a very intriguing and eye-opening 30 for 30 film entitled “Broke” that features predominantly football players.

3.) Just plain lack of advertising or even mentioning of any type of “off-the-field” achievement

Yes, the major networks do make sure to spend a whole 60 seconds to highlight a given team’s “Academic Honor Roll” player, but this is the maximum exposure.  Heck, in the BCS Championship game, I think AJ McCarron’s girlfriend got more airtime than Barrett Jones’ accomplishment of being the only player ever to make the Academic All-American team four years in a row.  Beyond sheer airtime, another test of the media/entertainment marketing (or lack thereof) for the “off-the-field” performance is general awareness or knowledge of a player-award pairing.   Besides Barrett Jones and Manti Te’o (both of whom got lengthy 30 second mentions during the title game for their academic performance), can you name one other person from this year’s Academic All-American first or second team?  There are 46 other players to choose from and I bet that you can’t name one more of them.   In fact, I bet that even if you polled the Athletic Directors and Coaches of these very programs that you find an alarmingly low amount of knowledge around who made the AAA team.   There’s nearly twice as many spots on the AAA first and second team (48) than in the AP Top 25 and yet this is the sad state of affairs.

So as I canvased the collegiate sports world comparing on and off the field performance rankings, I found that I just further affirmed my initial concerns raised in Part I.   Although off-the-field performance and recognition programs have and continue to exist in collegiate athletics (like the AAA program), there is a massive gap between them in terms of history, evolution, promotion and just plain care and effort from a school, coach and fans’ perspective.  And each year we tout and advertise the Top 25 rankings with little care for academic or other off-the-field performance, we tip the scale more in favor of athletics over academics until we have all but forgotten that these young men and women have any future outside of sports.   How do we stop or at least slow this trend?  First, we must start to redirect some the energy we put into traditional rankings and put our heads together to think a more integrated or “complete” college ranking that factors in “off-the-field” performance.    Maybe then, when we embrace a complete ranking, we’ll at least be telling the truth when we cheer for our favorite “student-athletes.”

Sources: Capital One Academic All-America Home Page, NCAA Publications, ESPN, Forbes’ Article on ESPN “Broke” Documentary, Wikipedia

Read On: Part III
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This article is part of the monthly three-part series entitled “Sport: A Case by Case Basis.”  Each monthly series features a condensed case study analysis that will be broken into three parts: “The Look In,” “The Sign” and “The Pitch.”  See the overview page in the About the Site section for more information.

2 responses to “Case: Revising College Sports Rankings (Part II)

  1. Pingback: Case: Revising College Sports Rankings (Part I) | The Drive·

  2. Pingback: Case: Revising College Sports Rankings (Part III) | The Drive·

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