The initial eligibility certification process is still a mystery to most people. The idea of initial eligibility started in 1983, when university president adopted Prop 48, which became effective in 1986. The original requirements were a 2.0 GPA in 11 core courses and at least a 700 SAT or 18 ACT. Over the ensuing years, the core ideas have remained, but the methods tweaked and the numbers raised. A single minimum GPA and test score gave way to a sliding scale. The ACT composite score was changed to the sum of the individual sections. And the 11 core courses slowly but inevitably rose to the 16 required today.
The process has changed as well. A decade after Prop 48 was enacted, the NCAA Initial Eligibility Clearinghouse was established. Run by the same company that administers the ACT, it was designed to ensure that everyone was working off the same information. That gave way in 2007 to the NCAA Eligibility Center, now a part of the NCAA itself. And along the way the process picked up new characteristics. Instead of simply saying “This is what the list of courses are and this is which ones are on the transcript,” the Eligibility Center asks whether the courses are really core courses, whether the work was properly done to put them on the transcript, and whether the high school itself is academically sound for student-athletes. On top of that, a review of the student-athlete’s amateur status was added in 2007 as well.
The NCAA is correct when they say this process goes smoothly in the overwhelming majority of cases. So to say the system doesn’t work is incorrect. If the idea of centralized initial eligibility certification doesn’t work, it fails or is flawed in a tiny minority of cases. Cases like Enes Kanter’s tend to highlight the flaws in the system, but also point out how outside influences can bog down the system.
It should go without saying that an initial eligibility case cannot start until the prospect registers with the Eligibility Center and answers the amateurism questions. After that, the amateurism certification staff may request additional information and documentation. Gathering all that takes time.
The solution to this problem has been to tie elements of the recruiting process to the initial eligibility process. An institution can’t provide a prospect with a National Letter of Intent unless they register with the Eligibility Center and complete the amateurism questionnaire. They can’t be provided an official visit unless they register and send the school a transcript and test score.
On a side note, this has the unintended consequence of allowing anyone who controls a prospect’s registration with the Eligibility Center and/or a prospect’s academic record to control their recruitment. Don’t want a prospect to sign in the early signing period? Keep them from registering with the Eligibility Center. Don’t want a kid to take an official visit to a certain school? Refuse to send them a copy of the prospect’s transcript.
Who Steps Up
It should come as no surprise that the Eligibility Center likes dealing with member institutions rather than prospective student-athletes directly. If you work with prospects, you’re signing up to deal with hundreds of thousands of individuals who come to the process with little or no prior knowledge and go through the process once. On Division I campuses, there might be fewer than 2,000 individuals who would ever have any reason to contact the Eligibility Center. Realistically, you’re looking at maybe a few hundred to a thousand people who contact the Eligibility Center on a regular basis from member institutions in each division (I and II only).
Add in the fact that Bylaw 12.1.1 places the responsibility on member institutions to ensure their athletes are amateurs. The result is that an initial eligibility case really doesn’t get moving until either the Eligibility Center knows for certain where the prospect will enroll, or a member institution steps up and agrees to shepherd the prospect through the system. Because the onus is on the member institution, you don’t want universities trying to jump in midstream and getting up to speed, especially if other universities might have critical information sitting on their campus that they are unwilling or unable to share.
It’s tempting to look at the Kanter case and say “Everyone knew this was going to be a problem, someone should have started this sooner.” But every fan should take a second before getting up in arms. As passionately as fans follow recruiting, and as angry as some get when a coach cannot secure a commitment from a certain prospect, imagine how livid they would be if that institution helped the prospect get eligible and watched as the prospect enrolled somewhere else.
No He Said, She Said
One of the most important and time-consuming phases of a difficult amateurism case is the fact-finding stage. That comes from two key features of amateurism certification. First, the fact-finding stage is not concluded until everyone (prospect, institution, and Eligibility Center staff) agree to the facts. Second, the opportunity to introduce additional facts after the fact-finding stage is severely limited. The goal is to produce an environment where everyone is motivated to offer as much information as possible.
The same goes for the interpretive stage, which does not commence until the fact-finding stage is over. Here, all the parties involved agree to a certain set of rules that are going to control the case. Then the case is forwarded to the student-athlete reinstatement staff for a decision. After conflicting reports of the facts arose in the Kanter case, Kentucky fans feared that the Eligibility Center would side with the professional team in a he said, she said debate. That can’t happen in an amateurism certification case because the case doesn’t move forward until everyone says the same thing.
At each point, there is a group of NCAA staff the institution works with. There is also a committee made up of NCAA member institution staff to hear appeals and offer guidance at each stage (specifically the Amateurism Fact-Finding Committee, the Legislative Review and Interpretations Committee, and the Student-Athlete Reinstatement Committee). In contrast to the American court system, the NCAA allows, promotes and in fact requires interlocutory appeals, that is appeals before the case is concluded.
As long as the process takes, the alternative is worse. Each step would still take some time, but you’d see cases move through the process multiple times as institutions respond to adverse decisions by raising new facts they had known all along and asking for reconsideration of interpretations. It might not seem it, but the process is as cooperative as it can be right now, which helps competitive equity on top of faster decisions. Make it adversarial between the Eligibility Center and the institution/prospect and the compliance arms race, currently bubbling beneath the surface, would begin in earnest.
I struggle with solutions because I’m not sure the process is broken. Even as far as tweaks to the system, there are big costs involved. A more proactive approach by the Eligibility Center to reach out and deal directly with prospects sounds like utopia. But I’m sure I’m not alone amongst compliance professionals who have nightmares about receiving a call regarding a prospect that begins “Hello, I’m the attorney representing Johnny Bluechip in his case against the NCAA Eligibility Center.”
The key reform necessary is to not make the certification process harder for a while. I’m of the belief that what appears to be more vigorous NCAA enforcement over the last six months or so is actually more experienced NCAA enforcement staff members maintaining the same commitment they always had. The same goes for the Eligibility Center. Every case teaches the staff something, and that knowledge will go toward faster and more accurate decisions in the future.
It’s tempting on campus to see the Eligibility Center as “one stop shopping,” especially because it sees itself that way. Want more information on prospect’s recruitment? Let’s do a recruiting certification! Want to deregulate recruiting contact put it the hands of the prospects? Hey, the Eligibility Center can run a “do not call” list! As the ones who decide what the Eligibility Center’s job is, let’s not make it harder until we’re sure that the certification of academic and amateur eligibility is as effective and efficient as it can get.
But one change in the rules that could make this worse is a proposal currently making its way through the governance structure. Proposal 2010-42 would ban all offers of athletic scholarships prior to July 1 before a prospect’s senior year. The intended effect is to eliminate verbal commitments prior to that date. Which means coaches and administrators would be extremely reluctant to saddle up for difficult eligibility cases until then. Plus the proposal requires a five-semester transcript to be submitted before a verbal offer is made, offering another opportunity for someone with control of a prospect’s transcripts to control the recruiting process.
The best course is to continue the current one. As someone who works with this process every day, it works much better than it seems, even when the results don’t come out the way you expect. Everyone involved, especially the NCAA staff and compliance professionals on campus just needs a chance to get better at it. Above all, that means keeping the NCAA members from shooting ourselves in the foot with new initiatives and rules that will start the process even later for the hardest cases.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.