NCAA Ponders Revising Academic-Eligibility Rules

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Hearing a growing chorus of criticism that its strict freshman-eligibility requirements for college athletes punish minority and low-income students and undermine school reform, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has signaled that changes could be on the horizon.

The Overland Park, Kan.-based organization announced June 5 that it will begin discussing the current academic standards with member institutions this summer and could propose changes to its policies in the fall.

Cedric W. Dempsey

"The [initial-eligibility] subcommittee has been looking at research for several months now, but before it makes any decisions, the rest of the [NCAA's] governance structure need to see the data," said Wallace I. Renfro, a spokesman for the group that governs intercollegiate sports. The organization's academic standards, he added, "aren't going away" and could remain as is.

Since August 1996, the hotly debated eligibility standards--called Proposition 16--have required that prospective freshmen who want to compete during their first year of college complete at least 13 core academic courses in high school and earn a grade point average in those courses that, combined with a college-entrance-exam score, qualify on an NCAA index scale.

The Washington Post reported last month that NCAA Executive Director Cedric W. Dempsey was considering recommending a change in the minimum test score. But Mr. Renfro said that Mr. Dempsey's position may not be that of the NCAA governing board, which ultimately decides policy.

'Tide of Criticism'

Critics of the association's academic requirements, ranging from the National Association of State Boards of Education to author Jonathan Kozol, contend that the NCAA's rules obstruct school reform and deny qualified student athletes eligibility based solely on random and discriminatory academic requirements. ("Minority Student Athletes Hit Hardest by Stricter NCAA Eligibility Rules," Feb. 11, 1998.)

After the U.S. Department of Justice late last month determined that the NCAA's rejection of most courses taken by students with learning disabilities violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, the organization agreed to modify its course requirements to better accommodate those students. A class action alleging that the NCAA discriminates against minority students because it uses college-entrance-exam scores is scheduled to go to trial in January.

Detractors say these very public battles are forcing the organization to make changes. "I think the NCAA is reeling from all the setbacks," said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota. "And it's being forced by lawsuits and federal agencies, and a growing tide of public criticism, to confront the fact that they've made mistakes, they've damaged a bunch of kids' lives, and frustrated the efforts of education reform."

Mr. Nathan has been documenting cases in which high school students were denied eligibility because the more rigorous courses they took did not match the descriptions set forth by the NCAA.

But others fear a return to the days when athletes--ill-prepared for the rigors of college--could spend their time on campus taking "basket weaving" and "basketball physics" before, ultimately, dropping out.

Stepping Backward?

Creed Black, who helped lead the now-defunct Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a panel of college presidents, lawmakers, and business leaders whose recommendations led to the ncaa's adoption of Proposition 16, said that any softening of the group's requirements represents "a major step backward."

"I think it's an insult to these athletes--black or white--to say that they can't meet these standards," said Mr. Black, the former president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Miami-based philanthropy that created the commission in 1989.

Letting college athletes "waltz away from school with no education" is a much bigger problem, he added, than that of student athletes' having to study harder to meet the academic bar.

While not perfect, Mr. Renfro said, the eligibility standards have helped ensure that prospective athletes are prepared for tough coursework and thus are more likely to graduate.

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Page 3

Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as NCAA Ponders Revising Academic-Eligibility Rules
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