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Controversy Erupts Over New Limits On Aid to Collegiate Student-Athletes

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A new rule that would deny athletic scholarships to college freshmen who fail to meet the National Collegiate Athletic Association's minimum academic standards was the center of mounting confusion and controversy last week.

A protest led by Georgetown University's basketball coach, John Thompson, prompted the college athletic community to reassess its support for the rule, known as Proposal 42, which was adopted Jan. 11 at the ncaa's national convention in San Francisco.

And in precollegiate as well as collegiate circles, the debate over the rule's merits widened to include the fairness of college-entrance examinations and the access of disadvantaged youths to higher education.

By week's end, the ncaa had said it would take steps to reconsider the rule.

Taking Away Incentive

The new proposal would tighten standards for freshman eligibility adopted by the ncaa three years ago under the rubric of Proposition 48. That rule focused increased attention on the precollegiate training of student athletes, but critics say that its implementation has been lax.

Others, in comments last week, said that the corrective would take away from some their lone educational incentive.

"'Prop 48' gives a student an opportunity to go to school and catch up with his education," said Fate Mickel, the basketball coach at Chicago's Dunbar High School. "'Prop 42' takes that right away."

The new rule was formulated to close what some had perceived to be a loophole in Proposition 48. It required that athletes have a 2.0 grade-point average in 11 core high-school subjects, and that they score at least 700 (out of a possible 1600) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or 15 (out of a possible 30) on the American College Testing Program test.

Under a provision of Proposition 48 known as the partial-qualifier rule, however, freshman athletes who met one, but not both, criteria could still receive athletic scholarships, although they could not play or practice their sports.

Proposal 42, which was initially rejected by the convention but passed on a second vote, takes away that opportunity. Under ncaa by-laws, students recruited as athletes are prohibited from getting other forms of institutional aid.

Supporters of the proposal argued that without it, college coaches would have a way--through the partial-qualifier rule--to circumvent the intentions of Proposition 48.

But critics of the measure, led by Mr. Thompson, have expressed fears that its implementation would deny some athletes the opportunity for college by making them ineligible for athletic scholarships or other institutional aid.

Mr. Thompson drew national attention to the debate on Jan. 14, when he walked off the basketball court before the start of a game between Georgetown and Boston College.

"If these kids today don't get that opportunity [for an education], who are they going to turn to?" he told The Washington Post.

The Georgetown coach has been a vocal critic of the use of standardized-test scores as a criterion for the ncaa's minimum academic standards. He argues, with other critics, that the tests are culturally biased against minorities. Statistics have shown that a majority of athletes who fail to meet the Proposition 48 requirements are black.

Voting Procedures Questioned

The controversy over the rule grew last week when representatives from several universities reported that they were confused about what they were voting on during the convention--or that their votes were recorded incorrectly.

The original ballot proposal was defeated by a vote of 159 to 151. But the measure passed on a second vote--by a margin of 163 to 154--after lobbying by its chief proponent, the Southeastern Conference, which has its own rule barring partial qualifiers. Each conference and school has one vote.

The proposal does not go into effect until the fall of 1990, leaving open the possibility that it could be rescinded at the ncaa's next annual convention, in January 1990.

The executive committee of the ncaa Commission, made up of member schools' presidents, will add a discussion of Proposal 42 to the agenda of its next meeting, to be held in two weeks, said Jim Marchiony, a spokesman for the ncaa

High-School Concerns

Observers at the high-school level tended last week to back the contention that the new rule would cost some the chance for a college education. But they also said that the institution of Proposition 48 three years ago had had a salutary effect on student achievement.

"It's wrong to deny a student grants-in-aid if he or she doesn't have adequate test scores," said Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "It's wrong because if a student were not an athlete, he might easily qualify for some other kind of aid."

Tim Christensen, assistant director of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said aid officers were worried that students not qualifying under Proposal 42 would not then be able to get other forms of aid.

"The major concern is equity for all students," he said.

To Robert S. Boone, a professional academic counselor in Chicago who assists students trying to qualify for eligibility under Proposition 48, the new rule is "contradictory" to the ncaa's intentions in drafting the original standards.

"I do know a lot of [Proposition 48] kids who go to school, spend a very good year not playing basketball, and then are much better prepared" for coping with both their college coursework and the demands of athletics, he said.

Mr. Mickel of Dunbar High School said he feels it is important for disadvantaged student-athletes to go to college, even if they do not measure up to the minimum standards.

"The key is to go to school," he said. "If you take this away, it is going to put a majority of these kids back on the streets."

Others asserted that while some college coaches may be abusing the partial-qualifier rule, Proposition 48 is having a positive effect on high-school athletes and should not have been tinkered with so soon.

"It seems to me that Prop 48 has stimulated high-school students to do better work," said Warren Brown, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, an umbrella organization of state athletic groups.

Mr. Thomson agreed. "Prop 48 has definitely increased the motivation," he said. "It has helped us keep athletes serious about school."

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