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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

NCAA Initial Eligibility Clearinghouse

“The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.” So said, Eugene McCarthy. You might want to keep that quote in mind as you read this post.

This is the time of year that most freshmen hit the field as their first fall camp begins. Many athletes, however, have their freshman campaign delayed by the NCAA Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse. Currently Nebraska is awaiting the arrival of Ricky Thenarse who was completing a summer class and will then need to be cleared by this organization. At last check USC was also anxiously awaiting the clearance of Vidal Hazelton and Jamere Holland. So just what is the Eligibility Clearinghouse and what causes these seemingly inevitable delays?

The NCAA Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse is the governing organization that officially certifies student -athletes as academically eligible to compete in NCAA Division I or Division II athletics. The Clearinghouse is not the NCAA per se, but is instead, an organization that performs academic evaluations for the NCAA. This body acts as the central "clearinghouse" of information for all colleges to verify that the student athlete meets the minimum set academic standards of participation.

Athletes are encouraged to register with the Clearinghouse at the end of their junior year of high school. To register students simply obtain an NCAA Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse application from their high school or guidance counselor. The athlete then completes the student-release form, which authorizes the high school to send his or her academic records to the Clearinghouse. The registration form and records are then sent to the Clearinghouse along with a $30 registration fee.

During the summer before the athlete’s senior year, the Clearinghouse provides them with an evaluation of their academic record. This evaluation includes information regarding what high school coursework they still need to take in order to become certified as eligible to play NCAA Division I or Division II athletics. The athletes are to then use this evaluation to schedule courses during for their senior year. Once the athlete graduates a final copy of their transcript must also be sent to the Clearinghouse to confirm their graduation and to continue the evaluation process.

The clearance process seems fairly straightforward on paper, however, as many athletes can attest; it can be anything but that in practice. As this New York Times piece relates, the problems are numerous.
“The problem lies in the failure of the NCAA, one of the richest nonprofit organizations in the nation, to evaluate academic eligibility for freshman athletes in a timely manner. From an inadequate number of telephones to answer the calls of parents, students and high schools, to its rigid policy not to inform a student until the end of his or her senior year what credits are needed for eligibility and scholarships, the NCAA's conduct has been arbitrary and shameful, say lawyers for those who have turned to the courts.”
No one seems to benefit from waiting for a student’s grades for their entire senior year to be submitted, before informing them of eligibility problems. By then it is too late for the athlete and for the school, which can’t always determine how the Clearinghouse will rule. If an athlete is not cleared, he may not appeal his case directly and it is up to his university to do so. This too, is often not a timely process. The N.Y. Times article discusses the case of Damon Phillips, a 6-foot 7-inch basketball player from Brooklyn, who after the NCAA objected to a preliminary injunction permitting him to play, ultimately missed two-thirds of his freshman season at Fairfield.

The process is also slowed simply by the numbers involved. Each of the 24,000 U.S. high schools has their own curriculum and the Clearinghouse is often too far removed from these schools to make accurate assessments. As Daniel Sagaran, Phillips's lawyer, stated:
"The staff liaisons of the subcommittee consist of two persons of extremely limited experience neither of whom had any training in high school teaching or course accreditation. Their actual review was woeful. No one called the school, learned about the course, determined whether it met the core course definition."

In addition, the Clearinghouse is likely under-staffed to deal with the quantity of cases they handle. The size of the organization ranges from 25 full-time evaluators up to 100 during the summer crunch time. The number of incoming freshman they have to deal with is around 130,000, and that figure was from 1996. Cases also become increasingly complicated if students attend more than one high school, or if the student must complete summer school before his transcript is finalized.

The Clearinghouse guidelines were put into place to protect the integrity of intercollegiate athletics and the NCAA says it needs the power to evaluate courses properly and to achieve uniform eligibility standards among the nation's colleges. But just how should that power be wielded and shouldn’t it be regulated in some manner?

“The NCAA is rigid with respect to its rules," said Gary Roberts, professor of sport and law at Tulane University. "With every coach trying to get someone in, they have a difficult job to do. It is not surprising that it is almost a police-state type of organization."

Surprising? No, but that is of little consolation to the players, coaches, and schools affected by the rulings. Oh and don’t forget the fans. Won’t someone please think of the fans?