Eligibility vs. academic preparedness

INDIANAPOLIS -- One is speaking plain English; the other feels lost in a bureaucratic town of Babel.

To one, it is so obvious.

To the other, inscrutable.

On one side sits a group of well-intentioned people in Indianapolis, folks who make rules and standards not to be exclusionary but to encourage academic success.

On the other side sit kids in classrooms -- some in high school, fretting about being allowed to play in college, and some in college, fretting about being able to play the next semester.

And in between is a chasm wider than a 7-footer's wingspan.

How high school athletes become eligible to play Division I sports and how they stay eligible in college is not exactly in lockstep with how the NCAA would like to see either of those two tasks accomplished.

So the NCAA makes new rules and increases standards and the students and coaches question their fairness.

The latest changes in eligibility standards will apply to this fall's high school freshman class, but we won't know their full effect until 2016, when those students prepare to step foot on college campuses. They are already sending ripples through the college community because they are so drastic -- a jump in the required minimum GPA from 2.0 to 2.3 and, perhaps more challenging, a rule that requires high school athletes to complete 10 of their 16 required core courses before their senior year of high school.

There is recourse for those who can meet the old standards but not the new ones. The NCAA is calling it an academic redshirt, a sort of nuanced version of a partial-qualifier. Students may receive a scholarship and will be eligible to practice with their teams but won't be able to compete. Provided they pass nine credit hours in their first college semester, they can compete the next season as a redshirt freshman.

The intent is simple: The NCAA and its Eligibility Center no longer want to see transcripts in which athletes essentially backload the better part of their academic curriculum at the end of their high school careers.

Instead of taking courses in order, kids desperate to earn an eligibility stamp collect classwork like stamps, taking geometry before algebra and English 4 simultaneously with English 3.

Now the NCAA is demanding that high school students follow a typical pattern, in which learning is built on prerequisites.

"The real shift is to academic preparation instead of just getting eligible," said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs. "This is a philosophical difference than what's out there. There's this attitude now that I'll just do all these things late in my career just to get over the eligibility mark. Well, you're still not prepared. This is a focus that says you have to be prepared."

Absolutely no one will argue that logic. Life would be a lot rosier if student-athletes arrived on campus actually ready for college.

Except for these simple questions: Will these rules effect that change? Can you legislate academic preparedness? Or will these rules merely pull out the college rug from a large percentage of athletes?

The numbers suggest the latter. According to the NCAA's research, 43.1 percent of men's basketball players, 35.2 percent of football players and 15.3 percent of all student-athletes who enrolled as freshmen in 2009-10 to play Division I sports would not have met the 2016 standards.

"We do want a higher GPA, but I do think you ought to go back and take a look at what you've really done and compare it against some of the statistics," SEC commissioner Mike Slive told ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel. "Because we think [the NCAA] may have overreached in doing that.

"I think we're in the right arena; I don't know if we've got the right seat."

The NCAA disagrees. Admittedly, the numbers are staggering, but the requirements, it says, are not.

"This is what kids do," said Diane Dickman, NCAA managing director of academic and membership affairs. "You're supposed to be taking certain courses, so these expectations are normal. These are still minimum expectations, minimum levels of preparedness."

And so here we are, somewhere between academic preparedness and eligibility, and the more cynical questions dangling in between.

"No matter how high you raise the grade point average, athletes and their handlers will find nefarious ways of getting them eligible at any campus," said Gerald Gurney, a former president of the National Association for Academic Advisors for Athletics and associate athletic director for academics at Oklahoma, where he is now a professor of adult and higher education.

"There is just too much money involved to keep great athletes out of competition. … [The new standards] might close access to some athletes, but what you get out of that are academically prepared students. Does that mean it will stop cheating? No. But it will stop some of the cheating. It will keep out students that do not belong in college."

Discord and confusion are nothing new here. The NCAA has increased academic standards before. People screamed, and kids adjusted.

On at least the latter, both parties can agree.

"The kids always adjust," Kansas men's basketball coach Bill Self said.

"The vast majority will do this," Dickman said.

"Every time we've made these little adjustments, people have adjusted to it," Texas men's basketball coach Rick Barnes said.

The rest, to an extent, is an old argument with a new twist.

Coaches and parents have long complained that the NCAA mandates a standard for core courses and grades despite a secondary education system that is neither standard nor equitable, yet another complaint that is supported by the numbers.

Todd Leyden, president of the NCAA Eligibility Center, recently looked at which students were deemed non-qualifiers -- those who went through the clearinghouse but were not given the OK to compete. Historically, 10 percent of prospective student-athletes from any given school district might not qualify. Looking strictly at the top 30 urban school districts, Leyden saw drastically different numbers: In New York, for example, 37 percent of the students who wanted certification were not eligible. In Philadelphia, that number was a staggering 44 percent.

So who is to blame? The kids or the system?

"The real issue is the difference in high school curriculums," said Christian Spears, the senior associate athletic director at Northern Illinois, who also serves as the president for the National Association for Athletics Compliance. "Some have a core-course list with 50 to 100 courses, giving the student a great opportunity to get the number they need. Others have 20, and you need to have 16 [to meet NCAA eligibility standards]. That's unfair and to no fault of a student. It's about where they grew up, yet they're held to the same measurement."

Yet the NCAA has no choice but to enact cookie-cutter legislation. Left to the individual institutions, the fear is plain -- that the oft-referred-to slippery slope will encourage some schools to throw their admission standards out the window in exchange for a stuffed roster.

So the NCAA is left to accept a C from a wealthy suburban school just as it would C from an inner-city public school or a virtual C, so to speak, from an online school.

"I don't think anyone would argue the premise that schools are different than one another," said Nick Sproull, the assistant director of the Eligibility Center's high school review group. "Sure, some people would say that it's unfair if School A and School B are so different from one another. But it's danged if you do and danged if you don't. A lot of people would say we don't want the NCAA comparing or ranking schools."

The bigger, trickier questions are: Do these students belong in college? And can rules force a disinterested or, even more problematic, a deficient student into one ready to handle college?

You can lead a student to a textbook, but can you force him to study and learn?

Even the president of the Eligibility Center wonders.

"Can we really transform the way we do business to impact student-athletes and their academic preparation?" Leyden said. "I'd say yes, but to what degree?"

No one will argue that the NCAA and the Eligibility Center are backing a noble cause here. They are offering opportunity, sometimes to kids who otherwise wouldn't have it.

And plenty have soared. For every cautionary tale of a kid who flunked out, there are probably 10 of an athlete who converted his chance into a college degree and a better life.

So it's a roll of the dice, but is it one worth taking?

And more, for an organization that argues vehemently against special benefits, isn't it affording the ultimate special benefit by admitting a student to college who, without his or her athletic talent, wouldn't get accepted?

"That's what I've been saying for many, many, many years," Gurney said. "Why do we need an army of learning specialists at our schools? Why do we need to remediate athletes so that they can learn how to read beyond the fourth-grade level? Is that appropriate? Is that what college is supposed to be about? I don't think so."

Others contend that it is, especially when the universities that take the risks cash in at the turnstiles, promising nothing but an opportunity and profiting regardless of the outcome.

The NCAA might have stumbled on its own solution, albeit one with equally tricky issues. The academic progress rate now essentially tells universities that their athletes must, in fact, be students. They not only have to make progress toward a degree each semester but they have to attend classes and pass them.

Some coaches argue that the APR and the threat of an APR-related penalty ought to give universities leeway to admit at-risk students.

"With the APR penalties -- and I am 100 percent against the APR -- why do we need so much [Eligibility Center] stuff?" Self said. "The penalties are there. The APR tells the president and the admissions office, 'If you admit this person, he better be able to make it.' No coach out there is a fan of the APR. But, in my personal opinion, shouldn't it be used to look at schools' success rates? To me, it's like a double jeopardy."

This is a philosophical difference than what's out there. There's this attitude now that I'll just do all these things late in my career just to get over the eligibility mark. Well, you're still not prepared. This is a focus that says you have to be prepared.

--Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs

Naturally, the APR creates its own inherent problems, evident to even its biggest fans. Spears, like most academics and administrators, thinks the APR is working terrifically. It forces a coach to do exactly what Self said -- invest in a kid's academic success.

On the flip side, the push to retain eligibility has never been higher. Athletes want to compete and coaches want to avoid APR penalties, but although that all sounds well and good, Spears said it is creating a culture in which athletes are "majoring in eligibility."

"We're forgetting that these are normal kids," Spears said. "They make changes -- change their major, drop a class -- and we make it very difficult for them to do that without punishment. How many students are switching majors just to get eligible?"

Spears sees a simple solution: let students have a one-time allowance. If they are short of meeting the credits required to maintain progress toward a degree but there is proof that they've done their work and passed their classes, give them a chance to remedy the problem for one semester and get back on track.

"Naturally, everyone will say the slippery slope, people will take advantage," Spears said. "And yes, someone will. But should we worry about the small minority that will use this in a nefarious fashion or concentrate on the ones who will use it as it's supposed to be?"

So what do we know for sure?

None of this is easy or uncomplicated. There is a reason the NCAA has tweaked its standards repeatedly; it's because with every change comes another wrinkle.

Just what the latest adaptations will do won't be evident for a long while, but the rules themselves are coming in a hurry. High school students about to begin their freshman year will be held to the 2016 standards.

"The key thing with all these core course [requirements] is they need to know in ninth grade," Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said. "A lot of young people and parents don't understand. So when a young guys finds out in his junior year that he might be a Division I prospect, and he and his parents find out there's no way he can get the work done, that would be my concern. If we're adding to that list, boy, we need to get the word out sooner. That's a real challenge."

That's the real front-burner issue in the here and now. It isn't what the new rules will mean or how they will work.

It's how can we legislate these changes without informing the affected parties?

"I am not against improving and encouraging kids to do better academically," North Carolina men's basketball coach Roy Williams said. "I am against such a drastic step when there hasn't been enough educational process for the high schools. There hasn't been enough time. There hasn't been enough discussion."

I am not against improving and encouraging kids to do better academically. I am against such a drastic step when there hasn't been enough educational process for the high schools. There hasn't been enough time. There hasn't been enough discussion.

--North Carolina men's basketball coach Roy Williams

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald agreed that a lack of awareness about the changes is a concern. "We've got to do a great job as an NCAA, a great job as a Big Ten conference, a great job as coaches in our states and our regions educating the athletic directors, the head coaches, get the principals and the guidance counselors on board and help these kids understand that there's no freshman free pass anymore in high school," Fitzgerald said.

"It's no longer, 'I'm going to take a summer school class to get myself right.' It's gone. It's a huge, huge impact. I just hope the counselors know about it so they get these kids going right away."

Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon suggested that every coach film a PSA during his conference's meetings and have the ads run throughout the season during televised games and in lieu of the regular NCAA tournament ad that reminds people not everyone will go pro in his or her sport.

"This is critical," he said. "We have to let people know."

He has, oddly enough, plenty of agreement across the canyon of discord.

The NCAA is developing its own national outreach strategy and will send staff to high-profile camps to get the word out. It is also experimenting with loosening restrictions on phone calls and text messages with recruits and will look into allowing coaches to communicate with athletes as early as eighth grade.

"That's a big question," Lennon said. "Should we liberalize the rules to allow coaches and institutions to have earlier access to people in the spirit of getting information out? To say, 'I'm not interested in you coming to my campus but I am interested in you being prepared to go to any campus.' If that meant a letter to an eighth-grader, saying, 'Study,' are we ready as a community to allow that? Going to call that into question this year.

"It's pretty powerful. If, say, a young person gets a letter on Duke letterhead and says, 'Hey mom, what's this? It says I need to take the right classes.' That's going to be pretty impactful."

As part of the Eligibility Center's birth (and separation from the clearinghouse) in 2006, the group introduced a customer service line.

Beleaguered is probably a fair way to describe the folks who staff those lines.

Fast-forward four years and imagine, then, what it could be like.

"We've got to convince people to explain this to kids early," Leyden said. "I don't want to be the person in 2016 saying, 'No, no, no.' We get enough bad phone calls already, and it's so hard. People are crushed. They are crushed, and they don't realize they've done anything wrong until it's too late. We can't let that happen here."

ESPN.com's Robbi Pickeral, Ivan Maisel and Adam Rittenberg contributed reporting.