Critics Misjudge the N.C.A.A.'s Standards for Athletes

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During their annual convention in January, members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) voted to increase the academic requirements that must be imposed by Division I institutions on freshman athletes.

To be eligible for intercollegiate athletics at the largest NCAA institutions under the new rule, known as Proposition 48, freshmen must have a 2.0 overall high-school average and the same average in three years of English and two years of mathematics. They must also score at least 15 (out of a possible 35) on the American College Testing (ACT) program's examination, or 700 (out of a possible 1600) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

The new NCAA requirement will take effect in 1986 and must be met by students applying for college admission that fall. A student athlete who does not meet these requirements can enroll on scholarship but will be ineligible for athletic competition for one year.

The new standard, approved by a large majority of the NCAA's Division I members, is a significant step toward requiring academic performance as well as athletic prowess from college-bound athletes. It is a clear message to high-school students that ability on the playing field alone will not be sufficient to become a freshman athlete.

Unfortunately, the NCAA's current admissions standard does not send such a message. It simply requires that students have a 2.0 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale) in high-school course work. No curriculum is specified in which this minimal academic average must be attained.

The three-year delay in the implementation of the new standard is designed to give schools, principals, teachers, and students fair warning and sufficient time to meet the new standards.

But three years isn't a great deal of time in which to change a far-too-common attitude that now allows and encourages young people to major in athletics in high school: How well a student can shoot or throw a ball, and how fast he or she can run, have been the major criteria for a college athletic scholarship in far too many cases.

The new standard says that young people with a burning desire to compete athletically will have to apply that drive to the classroom as well. And it says that teachers and coaches who now strive to develop a student's athletic potential will have to work harder in developing a student's academic potential.

The new standard has come under fire from several quarters: predominantly black institutions of higher education, national black leaders, and officials of national testing services. Many of the critics argue that the standardized tests are culturally biased and that the new standards will place a disproportionate burden on black athletes.

These critics are wrong. Their criticism demonstrates a lack of confidence in the ability of black athletes, or any others, to perform academically. Those who have the dedication and drive to perform athletically at the college level can also perform academically, if they know they are expected to attain a certain academic standard.

Moreover, tougher admissions standards greatly increase the chances of a student athlete's succeeding academically in college. No longer can we accept the prevalent attitude that athletes in college are not also students. It is a crime to continue to allow black students to enter college on the basis of their athletic skills alone.

The vast majority of college athletes will not play professional sports. The small minority who do become professionals should, of course, be educationally equipped to compete in the world at large. But the rest are being cheated if they leave college with no education and no skills beyond athletics. They are leaving the campuses with that handicap now because there is no requirement that they prepare themselves during high school with the knowledge to succeed in the college classroom.

The impetus to demand more academic achievement from student athletes has come from different sectors within the higher-education community. The College Football Association has been extremely active in promoting such standards. The final recommendation on Proposition 48 was made by a committee of 26 college and university presidents, under the auspices of the American Council on Education. And various formal and informal groups of coaches, athletic directors, faculty members, and presidents also worked inside and outside the NCAA structure for this change.

Even though the new eligibility rule is a major step in the right direction, we must put it into perspective. The mandate of a 2.0 grade average for course work that includes mathematics and English and of a prescribed SAT score of 700 or ACT score of 15 is stringent only by comparison to the current requirement.

The existing NCAA standard, requiring only a 2.0 average in high-school course work, is educationally meaningless; it does not even ensure that a student possesses basic reading and writing skills.

But before the current standard was introduced in 1973, the NCAA did have a meaningful admissions standard for student athletes. Known as the "1.6 rule," it based eligibility on a combination of high-school grade-point average or class rank in combination with an SAT or ACT test score. (These factors taken together produced a score on a scale from zero to 4.00.) To be eligible for athletic scholarships and intercollegiate practice or play, a student had to have a score of 1.6 or higher on the scale.

To earn a 1.6, for example, a 700 SAT or 15 ACT score required a 3.1 high-school grade-point average. Conversely, a 2.0 high-school average required an SAT score of 981 or an ACT score of 24 to register 1.6 on the scale. Students who met this requirement were presumed to be at least minimally prepared for college course work.

When this system was replaced, first by a "rank within graduating class" measure, and then by the current "2.0" standard, all incentive to perform academically was removed--largely because athletes in too many schools can easily "earn" whatever grades they need to meet the 2.0 grade-point requirement. With the re-introduction of a standardized test, the student must meet a requirement that cannot be influenced or adjusted in his or her favor. And requiring passing grades in basic courses means a student must have a certain educational foundation.

These new standards are still considerably below the average requirements for college admission on a nationwide basis (the national SAT average for all freshmen entering college is 892, for example). But when the rule does go into effect, student athletes will have a far better chance of educational success in college, and a far better chance of success in life.

Vol. 02, Issue 26, Page 18

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