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Protests Gather Steam Over NCAA Standards On Academic Eligibility

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The chorus of protests from student-athletes, parents, politicians, and high school officials over the NCAA's academic-eligibility determinations is growing louder.

Some educators have begun questioning if the National Collegiate Athletic Association has gone into the business of mandating curricula, while one state's governor is mobilizing his counterparts to confront the powerful group that decides who can compete in intercollegiate sports and even, perhaps, who gets to go to college.

Ever since the Overland Park, Kan.-based association beefed up its academic standards, many educators have claimed that the NCAA's evaluation system is not working as intended. Some students who were denied eligibility this year had taken high-level courses that the NCAA's Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse failed to recognize as part of a challenging curriculum. ("Student Coursework Runs Afoul of NCAA's Rules on Eligibility," Oct. 16, 1996.)

Although the issue first came to light in Minnesota, a growing number of parents and administrators around the country are now going public with similar complaints about the organization that overcame tremendous internal opposition to elevate the role of academics in college sports.

Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, which helps teams of parents and educators transform schools, has started a de facto national clearinghouse on the issue. He said that he has gone from thinking that the process was simply unfair to believing that the NCAA was dictating high school curricula.

"The NCAA is not content to tell students and high schools that the students must achieve a certain grade point average and have a certain test score," said Mr. Nathan, who has heard from parents questioning the academic-eligibility rules in 18 states so far. "What they are now doing is trying to tell high schools which courses are and are not appropriate. This is implicitly a national curriculum," he contended.

Although it has called for areview of the requirementswhich may not take place until Januarythe NCAA has steadfastly defended its actions. The requirements are not intended to set standards for graduation or make judgments on the classes, Kathryn M. Reith, an NCAA spokeswoman, said. "Their purpose is only to determine whether [students] can play sports in college."

Governor Protests

According to the NCAA's weekly newspaper, the new standards have created a "tidal wave" of waiver requests and telephone calls this year. The NCAA appeals board considered 19 appeals at its October meeting, up from only two to three at past meetings.

CAA officials also plan to create an appeals process for high schools. They maintain that high schools have contributed to the problems by providing imprecise descriptions of their courses.

But Minnesota Gov. Arne H. Carlson contends that the efforts to inform high schools about the standards have been inadequate. According to a letter he wrote to the NCAA, his staff called the group's Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse to request a copy of the publication intended for high schools, only to be told that it did not exist.

Only after his staff explained that the executive director had referred to it in a letter was the clearinghouse able to locate the document, Gov. Carlson wrote.

He has launched a campaign to have his fellow governors sign a letter requesting that the NCAA review its process and questioning its "expertise, mandate, or necessity to second-guess academic-course content that already has been approved at the state level."

High Schools Stymied

High school administrators across the country have expressed frustration with the process.

The NCAA declared Robert Marlotte, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ineligible to compete with his crew team due to a half-credit speech course he took in 10th grade at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Judy Conger, the dean of the alternative high school, defended the course. "It's infuriating when a national organization that isn't up to date with what high schools are doing nationally makes a judgment that this course isn't academically rigorous enough."

Devyn Braga, a senior and a softball player at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., learned that the clearinghouse had found her record to be deficient because she took English and history classes that were scheduled back to back and listed as "Sophomore Block."

Principal John Kriekard said that the school had fixed her transcript and resubmitted it. But he remained dubious. "The clearinghouse doesn't listen much to high schools."

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