The NCAA Eligibility Center: The Most Important Group You’ve Never Heard About

 

The NCAA Division 1 Cabinet met in Indianapolis this past week and adopted a set of recommendations concerning student-athletes who wind up attending a junior college out of high school due to initial eligibility problems.  The proposals are generally seen as sweeping in nature and the Cabinet is looking for feedback from member schools on this legislative package.

The proposals strengthen academic requirements for those student-athletes seeking to transfer from a junior college and sign an athletic scholarship to a Division 1 school.  The proposals also create an opportunity for student-athletes who need an extra boost academically to take a “year of academic readiness’ at a junior college without losing a year of athletic eligibility.  In other words, a student-athlete could spend a third year at a junior college completing additional coursework and still have three years remaining to play a sport for two years after transferring to a Division 1 school.

This program is available only to initial non-qualifiers and must be taken as the first year of a junior college course of study.  During this year the athlete can practice his or her sport; but cannot compete in any sanctioned competitions.

The Eligibility Center was called the NCAA Academic Clearinghouse until August, 2009 when a new director was hired and the operation was overhauled.  Many Division 1 coaches, particularly in football and men’s basketball, have been very critical of its operations.  Many coaches and compliance officials within athletic departments view the Eligibility Center as an adversary when it comes to getting prospective student-athletes admitted and eligible to play during their first year on campus.

The Eligibility Center maintains its offices in a nondescript industrial building a mile or so northwest of NCAA Headquarters.  It only employs 10 people full-time.  Coaches and athletic directors are no longer allowed to contact the Center directly.  They must go through their compliance staff, who can use IDs and Passwords to access information online or can call a carefully guarded phone number.

In January the Eligibility Center issued a final ruling in the case of Kentucky basketball signee Enes Kanter.  The Center ruled that he is permanently ineligible to play for Kentucky because of improper benefits he received while playing for a professional team in his native Turkey.  Fellow SEC member Mississippi State University just completed a 15 month odyssey trying to get basketball player Renardo Sydney cleared by the Center to play.  He wound up having to repay some $12,000 in alleged improper benefits his parents received and was declared ineligible for the entire 2009-2010 season and the first 9 games of the current season.

These high profile cases are just a miniscule part of what the Center deals with each year.  Most of its publicity is negative.  College coaches tend to protest that no one can understand how the Center works.  Yet every prospective student-athlete must be cleared by this group if he or she wants to play college sports as a first year student.

For a sampling of readings on this timely subject see the following links:

Greg Tyler, MPA, JD, MLIS
Greg Tyler is the editor of The Sport Digest blog.  The links provided in this story include one to a recent situation at Hobart University involving their alleged failure to properly clear men’s lacrosse athlete’s enrolling over a decade ago.  The last link is to a story that recently appeared in ESPN the Magazine.  A reporter was granted unprecedented access to the NCAA Eligibility Center for an entire workday in December, 2010.

 

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