Guest Column

My Friends at the NCAA

by LEONARD H. ELOVITZ

It's encouraging that the NCAA appears to be changing the way it deals with those of us responsible for running school districts in this country. It’s about time.

For the last 10 years, I’ve been second-guessed, our school district has been sued, and our students and parents have been misled and frustrated--all because of the NCAA's belief that it should dictate what constitutes an acceptable secondary school record for college-bound students.

Like many school administrators, I've had multiple run-ins with this group. The NCAA cost us money, frustrated deserving students and confused the community I serve. Recent developments, however, suggest we're finally making progress. The NCAA's reins are loosening.

In 1994, the NCAA began demanding that every U.S. high school submit descriptions of all English, social studies, mathematics and science courses for approval to its national clearinghouse, which was run under subcontract by the American College Testing Service. The clearinghouse used this material to decide which college-bound students should be eligible to compete in intercollegiate sports in their freshmen year.

Although the NCAA initiated this core-course criteria without conferring with principals, superintendents or school boards, we didn't question the NCAA or its motives at first. The NCAA simply was there to be obeyed.

As disagreements surfaced and became more severe and as clearinghouse representatives became more arrogant in their dealings with school leaders, we began to question their practices. Coverage in major newspapers challenging the initial-eligibility process made it clear this wasn’t just a problem in northern Minnesota. Our state superintendents' association urged the AASA to challenge the NCAA. The National School Boards Association passed a resolution questioning NCAA actions.

A Legal Toll
The first roadblock I ran into with the NCAA involved a young man who had graduated a few years earlier from our high school but had delayed his college entrance. When the NCAA clearinghouse told him he would be ineligible to compete his first year, his parents asked me to intervene. The young man seemed to have met their criteria.

Talking to a live person at the NCAA clearinghouse was difficult. After days of phone calls, I finally got through, only to discover the larger issue, which I initially thought was arrogance. The clearinghouse staff acted with a besieged mentality. They were almost paranoid, suggesting it was inappropriate for a superintendent to call them. They had no interest in dealing with me.

After weeks of attempting to help the former student clarify his status, I learned that one of the youngster's social security numbers had been transposed, a simple error that had led to him being disqualified from college athletics. Should this have taken weeks to resolve?

Another problem occurred with an athlete here in the spring of his senior year. His high school grades and college-entrance test scores met the criteria to compete as a college freshman, but the NCAA questioned two of his math courses. This meant he could not accept an athletic scholarship in ice hockey.

I later learned the NCAA had delayed or denied college athletic participation for National Merit Scholars, honor roll members and class valedictorians. What organization questions such students' qualifications to complete in college sports?

The NCAA's challenge came so late in our case that no corrective actions were possible for the student. The NCAA would not let him take an independent study course or attend summer school to correct the problem.

Ultimately, the family hired an attorney and sued our school district for $5,000. Our district isn't the only to be targeted in a lawsuit challenging the NCAA. We settled, but I don’t consider this a good use of $5,000. I think the NCAA owes us that much.

Bizarre Decisions
What especially alarms me is how the NCAA set itself up as a publicly unaccountable school board or state education agency. Universities developed one set of entrance requirements and the NCAA has devised yet another set of criteria for participation in athletics. The underlying premise is that the NCAA does not trust college admissions directors.

The NCAA developed some bizarre standards. It rejected any social studies course that devoted more than 25 percent of its time to studying current affairs. These can be valuable courses, yet the NCAA has rejected them as appropriate college preparation.

The NCAA clearinghouse did not always impress us with its competence, either. One Minnesota superintendent received a three-sentence memo rejecting an interdisciplinary English and social studies course. The short memo had three grammatical mistakes.

The NCAA’s rejection of interdisciplinary courses made it more difficult for many schools to offer them as parents and students assumed there must be something inherently wrong with courses that cover multiple subjects.

Relief at Last
After four years of battling such nonsense, the public education community finally could take some satisfaction in the NCAA's decision in January 2000 to accept an academic course that the principal determines to be college prepatory.

Officially, that means the NCAA no longer will second-guess school leaders. No longer must our curriculum teams use the NCAA Clearinghouse criteria as the template for educational change. Finally, we can determine ourselves what local curriculums and delivery systems should be.

I still have some doubts. Will the NCAA reimburse districts for legal fees we've paid? Will the NCAA reimburse us for the thousands of hours we've spent dealing with them? Will districts now spend less time filling out NCAA paperwork? Finally, when will the NCAA focus its regulation on its member universities rather than on high schools?

Lloyd Styroll is superintendent of Independent School District 318, 820 N. Pokegama Ave., Grand Rapids, MN 55744. E-mail: LStyrwol.isd318@itascanet.org