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International prospective student-athletes pose challenges

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick

Most student-athletes participating in intercollegiate athletics grow up in the U.S., though the number of international student-athletes is increasing dramatically – up more than 1,000 percent over the last 10 years.

The influx of different cultures into American colleges and universities has brought about benefits for domestic student-athletes who are exposed to a different world view, and for their international counterparts who often have unique opportunities through the American system that binds sport and education.

The benefits also are significant for coaches, who can recruit high-profile international prospective student-athletes in sports where the domestic pool isn’t as deep. Bringing in international prospective student-athletes can sometimes raise the level of play, create better competition and level the playing field.

Often, though, getting international prospective student-athletes through academic and amateurism certification can be difficult. Many of the challenges stem from the differences between the U.S. culture of sport and higher education and the different education and sporting cultures of the more than 180 countries the NCAA Eligibility Center works with worldwide.

While domestic prospective student-athletes often prepare their whole lives – academically and athletically – for the chance to compete at an NCAA member institution, the same isn’t true for international prospective student-athletes. From an early age, international prospective student-athletes who show an aptitude for a sport are groomed to play that sport professionally. By the time they reach the later years of secondary school (akin to high school in the United States), they may change strategy to try to get an education while playing at a high level at a U.S. college or university.

“They all of a sudden have to navigate our structure, a structure that was designed primarily with domestic prospective student-athletes in mind,” said Scott Johnson, associate director of academic certification at the NCAA Eligibility Center. Those hoops include making sure they have amassed the appropriate academic credentials to be academically prepared to compete in the classroom and figuring out whether their athletics participation in the past may have broken NCAA rules aimed at protecting the principle of amateurism.

Aligning international education systems with the American elementary school/middle school/high school progression can be complex. The assignment falls to the NCAA International Student Records Committee, composed of professional admissions officers, athletic administrators and academic personnel from within the NCAA membership and independent credential evaluation experts with knowledge of different educational systems.

Twenty-five years ago, the International Student Records Committee developed a set of international academic standards for each of the 180 different countries. It is an extensive guide that lists every country, its educational documents and the regulatory standards associated with the different credentials, such as leaving exams, grade-point averages and core-course requirements.

The standards are continually updated as education systems evolve, problems are uncovered and NCAA standards change. The International Student Records Committee used different resources, some international and some specific to individual countries, in developing and updating the guide.

The goal is to ensure that each prospective student-athlete who comes to an NCAA college or university for an education is academically prepared to do the work required to get a college degree in the United States.

While most academic certifications are straightforward and can be turned around in 24 hours or less, some require more analysis, particularly types of cases Johnson refers to as “split files.” In a split file, a prospective student-athlete has attended secondary school in more than one country with different educational systems. International split file prospective student-athletes often will start their upper secondary (high school-equivalent) education in their home country but will finish in the United States.

“What we end up having is a very difficult process of breaking down where they were in their international educational system, what grade level that would be equivalent to in the U.S. model, what grade level the U.S. high school placed them in when they came to the United States, and how appropriate that was,” Johnson said. “We are left in a pickle sometimes determining where they had been in their country and where they should be in the United States.”

And there are the occasional cases of fraud, either through transcript or document fraud, or when an international prospective student-athlete graduates high school (or its equivalent) overseas, comes to the U.S. and is placed back in high school for the sole purpose of developing athletically.

“The authenticity of what we receive is critical for the integrity of the academic certification,” Johnson said.

Authenticity and honesty also are important in determining amateurism. As part of registration, prospective student-athletes are asked to answer a number of questions designed to find out if amateurism rules have been violated in their athletics career and, if so, how serious the violations were. Almost 90 percent of amateurism violations found by the NCAA Eligibility Center staff are committed by international prospective student-athletes, even though only about five percent of registrants come from outside the United States.

The trigger for the amateurism violation may have occurred years in the past.

“In other countries, it’s a nonscholastic model. What that typically means is that at all levels, from the most junior team to the most professional, there is some amount of stipend involved. They’re being paid something,” said Geoff Silver, director of amateurism certification.

Anything above actual and necessary expenses is contrary to NCAA rules.

Silver said it’s also common for international kids who show an aptitude for sports to have what is called a manager (or an agent in the United States). Evaluating an agent case from another country is extremely difficult, Silver said.

Division I rules allow a prospective student-athlete’s teammate to accept more than actual and necessary expenses on a club team without jeopardizing the amateur status of the prospective student-athlete. The legislation relieved some of the investigative burden from the amateurism certification staff. Now, instead of spending time investigating athletes who will never enroll at an NCAA institution, the staff can devote its time to examining the activities of actual recruits.

But those examinations still take time, and Silver recommended that international prospective student-athletes register with the NCAA Eligibility Center as soon as the possibility of playing college sports is presented to them.

The NCAA Eligibility Center staff also must deal with international teams and coaches who sometimes resent losing promising young talent and resist providing necessary information about the teams – or provide information to help them keep their prized players. Other international coaches encourage their players to come to the United States and get more focused attention with the hope that they will return to their club or national teams after their education is complete.

Collaboration from the membership is vital since amateurism certification is considered a shared responsibility. In fact, the NCAA Eligibility Center only recently started certifying prospective student-athletes’ amateurism. Before 2007, it was left up to the institutions to verify the amateur status of their incoming recruits. With the NCAA Eligibility Center staff doing certifications, the judgments are more objective and consistent.

Objectivity is also a central requirement for academic certification. The international academic certification staff does not take subjective or mitigating circumstances into account, such as natural disasters or government upheaval, during the academic certification evaluation process. These mitigating factors are addressed by academic and membership affairs during the waiver and appeal process.

A critical variable to an amateurism certification evaluation is the high school graduation date. Amateurism cases that trigger penalties pivot off of the high school graduation date, which is a byproduct of the academic certification evaluation. Once academic certification receives all of the required official documents (i.e. high school transcripts, mark sheets, and/or leaving exam results and test scores) and finalizes the academic certification decision, the date of graduation is established.

Regardless of the timing of the academic certification evaluation, the amateurism staff begins work on their cases at a much earlier time than the academic staff, and in some cases will be waiting for the date of graduation to be established. Sometimes, international graduation dates are later in the year than the United States’ traditional late-spring commencement dates, thus delaying the submission of required official documents.

For amateurism certification, a final decision can be granted after April 1 before initial enrollment. After April 1, final amateurism certification decisions can be made, often quite quickly. But no decision can be made until a prospective student-athlete is registered and answers the amateurism questions. Some of the high-profile international prospective student-athletes might be on the NCAA Eligibility Center’s radar before registration, but most are first evaluated after registration.