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NCAA Rules Violate ADA, Student Charges

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A high school student with a learning disability is challenging the NCAA's latest set of eligibility standards, saying that they violate his rights.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association's new rules, set to take effect next August, ratchet up the academic requirements high school students must meet if they want to compete in intercollegiate sports. But Chad Ganden and his parents say those rules discriminate against students with learning disabilities.

Mr. Ganden and his parents, who live in Illinois, have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice citing the Americans With Disabilities Act. That 1990 federal civil-rights law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

Some members of the education community say the outcome of the case could give learning-disabled students a boost, while others doubt the outcome will have much effect at all.

However, some suggest that a Justice Department decision in favor of the youth could potentially undermine what has become known as Proposition 16. The new NCAA rule sets tougher benchmarks for sports eligibility at the college level, and thus affects high school students' chances of winning athletic scholarships.

A Swimming Champ

Proposition 16 repeatedly has been attacked by NCAA members and interested outsiders who claim it is biased against minorities.

In what has become commonplace at the NCAA's annual conventions, the group will be asked to vote next month on a few proposals that would weaken the standards called for in Proposition 16.

If the rule stands, high school students who want to qualify fully for Division I schools will need a 2.5 grade-point average in 13 core courses and 700 points on the Scholastic Assessment Test--820 on the "recentered" exam--or a 17 on the American College Testing program's entrance exam. GPAs can drop to 2.0, but SAT scores must rise to 900 and ACT scores to 21 for those students to qualify. So-called partial qualifiers do not have to meet as high standards, but they may not compete in their first year of college.

Mr. Ganden, a senior at Naperville North High School in suburban Chicago who has been diagnosed with a learning disorder, falls shy of the required 13 core courses.

Mr. Ganden's disorder was first diagnosed when he was in 2nd grade. According to his father, Warren Ganden, tests show that Chad Ganden is of normal intelligence but has decoding and organizing disabilities in reading and writing.

Because of his impairment, he was placed in basic courses in English and history but has taken regular courses as well. As a high school senior this year, he is taking all regular courses.

Mr. Ganden is a gifted swimmer who won the state's 100-yard freestyle championship last year. A number of top-notch Division I institutions are courting him, which makes him a prime candidate for an athletic scholarship. But because he has not satisfied the course requirements under Proposition 16, he has been barred from college-paid recruiting visits and early signing.

As things stand now, Mr. Ganden could meet the admissions requirements of some institutions, and his family could pay the way. But he would be prohibited from swimming competitively, at least during his freshman year.

The NCAA rules provide some leeway. Principals can vouch that the alternative courses students take are comparable to the core courses.

But the principal of Mr. Ganden's school said he could not do so in this case. "Technically, they don't meet the criteria," said Bruce F. Cameron. "What the NCAA is doing as far as setting [standards] is very appropriate, and it needed to be done." But "what about these kids with the special needs," said Mr. Cameron, who says he believes Mr. Ganden can succeed in college with appropriate help.

Rigid Rules?

Many colleges and universities have built some flexibility into their policies for learning-disabled students, according to Rhona C. Hartman, the director of the Washington-based American Council on Education's HEATH Resource Center, a clearinghouse on issues related to postsecondary students with learning disabilities.

Federal law requires the institutions to provide accommodations that are timely and effective but do not necessarily give the student exactly what he or she wants, she said.

"The NCAA has been trying very hard to raise its standards," said Ms. Hartman. "In doing that, it has become quite rigid in making the rules and apparently has not dealt with the need to accommodate because of disability."

But Kathryn Reith, a spokeswoman for the NCAA, said the group has taken learning-disabled students into consideration.

With the proper documentation, students are entitled to seek core-course waivers and to take different forms of college-entrance tests.

"We need to balance two things," Ms. Reith said. "One is the very real need to accommodate students with learning disabilities. The other is to make sure that those accommodations don't in some way create opportunities for those not diagnosed with learning disabilities to somehow use that to get out of meeting the standards."

Where the fallout might occur is in the high schools where principals could be held liable for defining what does and does not constitute a core course, said Stephen R. Yuriek, the director of legal services and federal relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.

The situation is further complicated by the increase in the number of disability classifications since 1975, when Congress passed what became the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. "I see potentially, if this case is successful, certain athletes could come back to the high schools and say to their principals, `You should have known I had a disability, and therefore I would have met the core requirements,"' said Mr. Yuriek.

The case also raises the possibility, he said, "that students can circumvent the NCAA."

For More Information:

The heath Resource Center of the American Council on Education offers a free publication designed to help students with learning disabilities prepare for college. Copies of "Getting Ready for College--Advising High School Students With Learning Disabilities" are available from the council at 1 Dupont Circle, Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 939-9320 or (800) 544-3284.

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