Like many of you, I suspect, I turn to the sports pages and ESPN as an escape from the disturbing and depressing “real” world. That’s the world in which our national Congress is paralyzed, the economy is mired in a recovery that is leaving millions on the outside and three wars produce more casualties than progress.
Lately, though, the sports report hasn’t offered much relief. The headlines shout about a highly paid and highly respected coach caught lying about rule violations, our most revered bike racer and cancer crusader accused of cheating and suspicions of corruption at the highest levels of the game the rest of the world calls football.
So let’s focus today on a rare and welcome bright spot. I mean our university’s softball team and, more broadly, a measure of athletic success that deserves more celebration than it has received.
You’ve seen, I’m sure, that the MU women have once again played themselves onto the biggest stage in softball, the College World Series. (Admittedly, the stage isn’t really all that big. The series is being played in Oklahoma City, which isn’t likely to be confused with any of the sites of the BCS football championship games. And the record crowd that attended last week’s super regional here was a little over 2,500, a number that would probably just about fill Section Q, where my football season tickets are.)
Still, it’s a big deal, especially coming as it does on top of the Big 12 conference championship.
The championship that should be even more exciting, at least to anybody who believes that the “student” in “student athlete” should come first, is this: The softball team also led the conference in the APR ranking. APR is not to be confused with RPI, ERA or any of the other initials that denote athletic achievement. Instead, it stands for Academic Progress Rate, the national measure that assesses how well an NCAA-member institution is doing at moving its athletes along toward the goal of graduation.
I don’t know exactly how an APR score is calculated, but I do know (because I read it on the Mizzou Athletics website) that it is based on a four-year average with points awarded on the basis of whether athletes remain eligible and either stay in school or graduate. A perfect score is 1,000.
Our high-flying softballers scored 997 in this year’s ranking, which leads the Big 12.
That’s what softball has in common with football. The football team didn’t do as well on the field, though it did claim the last co-championship of the Big 12 North. It did lead the conference in APR, with a score of 967.
I doubt the conference athletic directors spent a lot of time when they met this week in Kansas City comparing APR rankings. If they did, Mike Alden would have six championships to show, second only to the 10 of Texas.
(For the record, the other leaders are both men’s and women’s swimming and diving, women’s golf and gymnastics. The latter two earned perfect scores. Ten of MU’s 20 varsity sports finished in the top three in the conference. Men’s basketball was third; women’s basketball second. Only wrestling wound up below the national average.)
And just in case you might be looking for bragging rights, KU led in only three sports and Nebraska finished its Big 12 run with only one. Those with a vengeful nature may take some satisfaction in being reminded that Mike Anderson will lose one basketball scholarship at Arkansas because his predecessor did so poorly in academics.
The athletic department’s press release last week noted that our athletes have finished first or second in the conference every year since the APR was launched in 2004. That’s something to be proud of.
Now don’t you feel better? To make you feel better yet, I’m taking next week off.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.