The National Collegiate Athletic Association's governance bodies approved changes Thursday that will give association officials more authority to examine the academic credentials of prospective athletes who've attended high schools of questionable quality and rigor, and to look into the schools themselves. The new rules are designed to help the NCAA crack down on an apparent boom in the number of high school "diploma mills" that seem to help athletes who've struggled academically for years almost magically get their acts in gear and earn NCAA eligibility.
Also Thursday, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors initiated a year-long study aimed at identifying ways to improve the academic performance of baseball players, who fared comparatively poorly in March when the association, for the first time, began punishing sports teams based on members' failure to proceed toward a degree.
The rules changes regarding high schools stemmed from recommendations advanced by a special committee that the NCAA's president, Myles Brand, appointed in December in the wake of reports in The New York Times about a school in Florida that, apparently offering no in-person classes, had allowed more than a dozen football players to remake their academic records to qualify under the NCAA’s eligibility standards for freshmen.
The Times report brought to the surface an issue that had lingered for some time within the NCAA, especially as the association has ratcheted up its requirements for the number of core courses students must take in high school to compete in college while, at the same time, eliminating the minimum cutoff score athletes must achieve on standardized tests. Sports officials and others have grown concerned that an increasing number of athletes are enrolling in what are euphemistically called "nontraditional" schools and courses after failing at their regular high schools, and managing to earn eligibility in a matter of weeks or months, often in their senior year. Some of the schools offer a diploma for a flat fee.
The changes recommended by the NCAA’s Working Group to Review Initial-Eligibility Trends, and approved by the association's Division I Board of Directors and Division II Presidents Council, will give significantly greater authority to the NCAA Clearinghouse, a body that helps NCAA members assess the academic credentials of prospective athletes from schools across the country. Currently, the clearinghouse primarily reviews transcripts and other academic records presented to it by would-be athletes and decides whether the athletes should be eligible or not. But it has had little or no ability to review the course offerings at "nontraditional" high schools or to dig more deeply into the academic credentials of any individual athlete.
Going forward, however, the clearinghouse and NCAA staff members will have the power to examine the course offerings of any high school that is not approved by its state or regionally accredited, including the ability to make site visits to suspect high schools. (Association officials said they might hire lawyers or private investigators to undertake this work.) The association also will be able to pick apart the academic records of individual athletes that "flat out don't make sense," said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president for membership services and chair of the special panel.
Brand, the NCAA's president, said that the association also planned, as it "ferrets out fraud" about high schools, to work with state attorneys general to shut the schools and prosecute those behind them.
"There is a shared responsibility among the NCAA, member institutions that apply admissions standards, and state authorities who determine the eligibility of secondary institutions," said Brand.
The Baseball Problem
Besides the rules changes related to the high schools, the Division I Board of Directors considered 30 other proposals in its meeting Thursday, including one it tabled that would have reduced to 52 from 56 the number of games baseball teams are allowed to play in a season. The board's members, presidents of universities that play Division I sports, set the proposal aside not because they didn't think it was wise but, Brand said, because they concluded that the concerns about baseball players' academic performance were "deeper and broader than could be solved by just reducing those few games."
He said the board had asked NCAA officials to develop a "specific plan within 12 months that will have significant consequences for improving the academic performance" of baseball athletes. When the NCAA imposed scholarship reductions on teams that performed poorly on the association's new measure of academic progress this winter, more squads in baseball were penalized than in any sport other than football (including the much-maligned sport of men's basketball).
The review, which is expected to produce recommendations for rules changes that the board would consider a year from now, would explore rules related to transferring among institutions and financial aid as well as season lengths.
The Board of Directors also agreed to extend the length of the men's basketball season slightly and allow teams to participate in multit-team tournaments each year rather than twice every four years.