Big-time college sports -- focused for so long on football rankings and basketball tournament seedings -- will get a new set of numbers to ponder today.
For the first time, the NCAA will release a comprehensive "academic progress rate" report, an annual survey that rates every major college team in the nation, from the largest football squad to the smallest rowing crew, by how it performs in the classroom.
The numbers will eventually be used as part of a broad academic reform in which teams must satisfy minimum standards or face penalties that include loss of scholarships and banishment from postseason play.
The inaugural progress report, known as APR, represents a trial run because the NCAA will not begin handing out penalties until next year. Still, officials predict that more than 50% of Division I schools will have at least one team fall below the so-called "cutoff line," and they warn athletic departments to take heed.
NCAA senior advisor Wally Renfro called it "a snake in the grass waiting to bite you."
"If you are living life in the danger zone," he said, "it is only a matter of time before you get into trouble."
The NCAA has come under increasing scrutiny since 2001, when a respected watchdog group -- the Knight Foundation's Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics -- decried a "widening chasm between higher education's ideals and big-time college sports."
Critics have recommended, for instance, that teams should have to graduate at least 50% of their athletes to be eligible for postseason play. Last football season, nearly half of the squads in bowl games failed to meet that standard.
Of the eight teams in the prestigious bowl championship series, only three -- USC, Michigan and Virginia Tech -- had graduation rates of 50% or higher.
"Listen, the Knight Commission has wanted there to be consequences [for poor academic performance] for a long time," said Thomas Hearn, president of Wake Forest and the commission's chairman. "We support what [the NCAA] is doing."
But not everyone is confident the APR will help to bring change.
Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management and media at Ithaca College in New York, says that as long as college sports equate to big money -- with multimillion-dollar television contracts and corporate sponsorships -- coaches and their athletic departments will be pressured to cut corners, if not cheat, to win.
"I don't have a lot of confidence [the APR] will have a meaningful impact," said Staurowsky, who belongs to an academic group that has pushed for athletic reform. "The NCAA needs to take a very hard look at the entire nature of college sports. Until such time as those kinds of things get cleaned up, if they can be cleaned up, than these other measures are what I would call public relations moves designed to protect the NCAA brand."
It was the fall of 2002 when NCAA leaders, prodded by President Myles Brand, began passing a new round of academic legislation.
First came a change to the eligibility standard for incoming freshmen.
Critics had argued that requiring a minimum score on standardized tests was unfair to blacks and Latinos who have tended to score lower than other groups. The association instituted a sliding scale that relied more heavily on grade-point average while requiring high school students to take additional college-preparatory classes.
Next, the NCAA toughened the rules for athletes once they reach college. To remain eligible, scholarship players must complete 40% of the credits toward a degree by the end of their second year, 60% by the end of the third and 80% by the end of the fourth.
Finally, last April, officials proclaimed a "sea change" with the enactment of the APR and its penalties for poor performance. The program was intended to go beyond the traditional practice of punishing individual athletes, now holding teams and entire athletic departments accountable.
The APR formula works like this:
At the end of each academic period -- be it a semester or quarter -- each athlete is graded on two points. Did he or she get high enough grades to remain eligible for sports? Did he or she stay in school?
A basketball team with 10 players would have a maximum potential score of 20 points a semester, or 40 for the school year.
If two players fail their classes and drop out, the team gets 36 of 40 points for a .900 average or, as the NCAA calculates it, a score of 900.
The NCAA has set the cutoff line at 925, so the hypothetical team scoring 900 could face penalties.
If a team falls below 925 and one of its players leaves school, it loses that scholarship for the next academic year. Extremely low APRs could result in the loss of up to 10% of scholarships and additional recruiting restrictions.
As Renfro explained: "You'll have a program that is going to have a very hard road coming back to prominence."