Last week was a damning one for intercollegiate athletics, as an independent investigation revealed the extent to which senior officials of Pennsylvania State University (all of them now out of their positions) repeatedly opted not to report Jerry Sandusky to authorities, and allowed him to go on sexually assaulting boys. On Thursday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that it was continuing its study of whether Penn State was out of compliance with rules requiring "institutional control" of athletic programs.
On that same day, the NCAA announced that it was ready to find another university guilty of losing institutional control. And it approved the tough sanctions self-imposed by the university: three years' probation, a postseason ban, a vacation of athletics records, and recruiting limits. Was it the university where a booster was providing prostitutes to athletes? Was it one of the universities with a string of arrests of athletes? Was it a university investing more and more in athletics while cutting academic programs?
No. The university slapped down by the NCAA was the California Institute of Technology.
The violations at Caltech sound serious: Letting 30 athletes (over four academic years) play intercollegiate games while not officially registered for enough courses to be considered students.
The primary reason for these violations is a practice at Caltech (and some other institutions) called "course shopping." At the start of each semester, students are permitted to try out various courses and then decide in which ones to enroll. Technically the students aren't enrolled in these courses when they are trying them out -- and that means they aren't registered for enough courses to be considered full-time by NCAA standards during the few weeks at the start of the semester that this is going on. It doesn't matter that the students make their choices, officially sign up, do the work and are then full-time students. For a few weeks, the NCAA considers them ineligible part-time students. (There were also a few students who at the time they played fell short of Caltech's academic requirements, which are high.)
Caltech discovered the problem and reported it, leading to the official investigation and punishment announced Thursday. Caltech is not questioning the punishments, but did note in a statement that the NCAA had agreed that the violations reflected "no intentional wrongdoing."
What many in the blogosphere are finding striking is that the NCAA rules that seem to have a tough time preventing many kinds of academic misconduct can be applied in this way at a university that has among the most rigorous requirements of undergraduate programs in the United States. Every Caltech student must take multiple courses in mathematics, physics and chemistry, plus courses in biology, science writing, the humanities and social sciences -- and the science courses alone are at higher levels than those most American undergraduates (athletes and non-athletes alike) ever take.
"These Caltech athletes, math-letes, whatever they consider themselves, are some of the brightest, future chemical, geotechnical and aerospace engineers of the world. They’re some of the only collegiate hoops players in the United States who struggle more on the court than in the classroom," said the blog Busting Brackets. "Perhaps a tighter inspection of some of the blatant recruiting violations happening almost every day at major college programs would be a better use of time. And maybe borrowing one of the Beavers players to run the NCAA’s compliance departments would be a better use of assets."
On Yahoo! Sports, commenters were mixing their mockery of the NCAA with some gentle ribbing of Caltech. One wrote "Caltech, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. You have student athletes who can read and write." Another wrote: "Postseason ban? Caltech has a postseason?" To which another replied: "Yes, it's called finals week."
Basketball fans may be concerned about the status of a particular Caltech game. The Beavers broke a 26-year, 310-game streak of conference losses in Division III basketball on February 22, 2011. The Associated Press investigated and found that while some basketball players were among the 30 athletes the NCAA found ineligible, that game was not affected nor the win vacated.
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