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Connecticut lawmakers seek review after NCAA bans UConn

(Reuters) - Two members of Congress said Friday they would seek a review of the National Collegiate Athletic Association after its decision to ban the University of Connecticut from the 2013 “March Madness” post-season basketball tournament due to low academic grades by players.

Players from the University of Connecticut men's basketball team hold a clinic for students from Eliot-Hine Middle School, based in Washington, on a basketball court on the grounds of the White House in Washington May 16, 2011. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representative John Larson, both Connecticut Democrats, called the NCAA’s enforcement of its academic standards - against UConn as well as some other schools in recent years - as being “arbitrary and unfair.”

The NCAA banned UConn’s men’s basketball team, last year’s national champions, for a history of player academic scores that fall below new, more stringent standards the NCAA enacted late last year. The team announced earlier this year that it could not meet the new standards.

UConn officials have argued that it is unfair to punish current players for the academic failures of past teams, but the argument fell flat with NCAA officials, and they denied UConn officials’ pleas for leniency earlier this week.

“The NCAA’s ruling against the University of Connecticut yesterday and other recent examples of arbitrary rulings against students and universities across the country has convinced us that the current system for regulating collegiate athletics is broken,” Blumenthal and Larson said in a joint statement.

“We believe these issues demand congressional attention because the questions regarding fairness for student-athletes have gone on too long - and the reforms that have been made are not yet sufficient.”

The new rules have substantially strengthened long-standing NCAA requirements on academic performance. Schools must now ensure that at least half their players are passing courses and moving steadily toward graduation. Teams lose points for each player who drops out, flunks out or transfers after falling behind academically.

The new rules make suspension from the tournament automatic for schools that fail to meet the standard. The NCAA had previously punished lagging teams mainly with mild sanctions such as cutting the number of scholarships a school could offer. A handful of teams with especially dismal academic records were barred from post-season play in past years, but most had no chance of making the tournament anyway.

A dozen other teams, including Syracuse, one of this year’s top seeds, Ohio University and Florida State, are at risk of failing to meet the standard, according to a study released this month by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

Some say banning true contenders could change the nature of March Madness, the 68-team college championship tournament that has evolved into one of the nation’s premier sporting events and generates some $800 million in revenue annually for the NCAA.

In its bid to have the rules waived for next year, UConn acknowledged “unacceptable” academic performance by the men’s basketball team but insisted it has turned the corner.

University officials now track each player’s academic progress closely, and players are now required to take summer courses to rack up credits in the off-season. They must attend study hall 10 hours a week. Head Coach Jim Calhoun’s contract has even been rewritten so he forfeits pay if his players fail to make the grade.

The most recent data available, for players entering UConn in 2004, shows that just 25 percent graduated within six years.

The team’s four-year average Academic Performance Rating, which is based on how many players stay in school and pass their courses, stood at 893 out of 1,000 for the academic year 2009-10. That is far below the NCAA’s new standard of 930.

The only team in this year’s tournament with a lower rating was Mississippi Valley State University.

Reporting by Karen Brooks; editing by Greg McCune and Jackie Frank