MAXWELL:  NCAA’s unintended consequences

1/6/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In an earnest effort to carry out the wishes of reform-minded citizens nationwide, the National Collegiate Athletic Association raised academic standards for college-bound athletes. Changes included increasing to 13 from 11 the number of core courses students must pass in high school and raising the number of certified English courses required from three to four.

Like many well-intentioned plans, the reforms have had far-reaching unintended consequences, the most controversial being the disqualification or sidelining of many otherwise qualified athletes with potential scholarships. But instead of leaving high school ready to play, hundreds of students nationwide are being forced to wait until the NCAA’s Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse determines if courses qualify under the new standards.

In case after case, confused school officials, parents and students claim that the NCAA routinely misunderstands or misinterprets athletes’ academic records. The most serious troubles come when the agency discounts the rigor of nontraditional courses, especially those with unconventional names, that often are the most academically challenging. As a result, the NCAA has a deep backlog of paperwork.

Verifying a student’s academic record can take months _ well into students’ freshman year in college. “The NCAA does not have the expertise or mandate to second-guess academic course content that has already been approved by state government,” Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson wrote to the NCAA. According to the New York Times, Carlson’s opinion is shared by most governors and school officials nationwide.

And although players have the right to appeal the NCAA’s eligibility ruling, the process is lengthy and expensive, leaving many qualified students on the sidelines.

No discussion of NCAA reform is complete without mention of another unintended consequence: In addition to raising standards for all schools, officials also wanted to eliminate the practice of shipping players off to bogus junior college programs and others that have minimal academic rigor, where grade point averages are inflated. But in trying to catch a handful of cheats, the NCAA is hurting many innocents.

If the NCAA intends to keep the new standards in place _ and it should _ officials should do a better job of working with local school districts and state departments of education. After all, everyone wants to raise standards. But qualified students should not suffer because NCAA and school officials fail to work together.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.