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Too Many Academically Challenged Athletes

February 12, 2009

Colleges that play Division I sports have greatly varying policies on whether they will enroll athletes who fall short of the minimum academic standards the National Collegiate Athletic Association requires players to meet to be eligible to compete. Some do so once in a while; others bar them entirely. Until recently, it seemed, Eastern Washington University admitted such athletes consistently -- and it's now paying the price for having done so.

On Wednesday, the NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions took the unusual step (at the instigation of Eastern Washington officials themselves) of dictating admissions policies at one of its member institutions. In punishing Eastern Washington for major violations in its football program, the NCAA panel upped the ante on a penalty the university had imposed on itself, limiting the institution to admitting no more than three academic "non-qualifiers" a year for the next three years, and prohibiting Eastern Washington outright from recruiting community college transfers who do not meet the academic eligibility standards during that time period.

Eastern Washington's football program had admitted an average of seven academic non-qualifiers (athletes who fail to meet a combination of high school grade point average and standardized test requirements; for example, a 2.5 GPA in 14 core courses and an SAT score of 820) each year from 2003 to 2006, and ran afoul of NCAA rules not because it admitted too many underqualified students but because its former football coach let four of the players practice with the team. NCAA rules bar academically non-qualifying athletes not only from competing but from practicing and receiving athletically related financial aid.

The university's football program also broke the rules by letting other academically ineligible athletes practice or receive financial or housing assistance (one of these athletes also competed in games) and by having too many football coaches. The NCAA infractions panel faulted the former head football coach for his "inattention" to rule breaking, including failing to report violations that he'd become aware of, and blamed Eastern Washington for having an inadequate set of programs and policies designed to ensure compliance with NCAA and conference rules.

"The deficiencies within the athletics program were exacerbated by consistent turnover in certain positions and by the institution’s failure to devote adequate resources to the compliance effort," the NCAA panel wrote in its report on the matter. "During the relevant time-frame, the institution had five directors of athletics and three presidents, making it difficult to implement a comprehensive compliance system or establish long-term continuity. A more direct problem in the athletics department was that the compliance coordinator also served as the faculty athletics representative and had teaching responsibilities. It was simply not feasible for one individual to hold three such diverse and responsible positions and be able to devote the necessary time and attention to oversee an NCAA Division I compliance program. As a result, the ability of the institution to monitor and provide direction to athletics personnel was insufficient."

In addition to the highly unusual limitation on the number of non-qualifying athletes Eastern Washington can enroll, the NCAA also barred the university's football program from postseason competition in fall 2009, imposed restrictions on recruiting and the number of coaches it can have in the next three years, and similarly imposed restrictions on the former head coach, Paul Wulff, at his new institution, Washington State University.

Officials at Eastern Washington said they generally accepted the NCAA's findings but were troubled by the postseason ban and "will be assessing our appeal options."

 

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