Nov. 11, 2010

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick

Imagine running a business with a customer base of 180,000 individuals who change every year. The customers have no knowledge base to build on. No familiarity with systems or processes or standards. No previously established relationships to draw from. You start from scratch with new customers.

This is the challenge facing the NCAA Eligibility Center. Every year, 180,000 prospective student-athletes register to have their academic credentials and amateurism status certified. Every year, the NCAA Eligibility Centers staff must explain whats expected, when and why. And every year, the staff works to deliver reliable, consistent, timely and accurate decisions on the academic eligibility and amateur status of every prospective student-athlete for which an institution has requested certification.

The vast majority of prospective student-athletes placed on a Division I or II institutions request list (IRL) are certified, most within days of submitting all of the required information and requesting final certification. About seven percent every year are deemed academic nonqualifiers (they dont meet academic standards set forth by the membership in the division in which they desire to compete), and about 600 prospective student-athletes are not certified because of amateurism issues (mostly international recruits).

Throughout the process, the NCAA Eligibility Center must rely on the accuracy of the information provided by the prospective student-athlete, the member institution interested in that prospective student-athlete, the collegiate testing agencies, the 30,000 high schools in the U.S. and the educational ministries in 180 different countries.

We are here to serve the needs of the member institutions and take very seriously the academic preparation and readiness of incoming student-athletes. We are dedicated to make consistent and fair decisions in accordance with the memberships' rules to create a level playing field and ensure academic readiness," said Todd Leyden, president of the NCAA Eligibility Center since its creation in 2007.

The NCAA Eligibility Center was established to facilitate a process that is reliable, consistent, timely and accurate in decision-making and ensures an equitable competitive environment for NCAA member institutions.

Over the last three years, Leyden and his staff have worked with the membership and the Academic and Membership Affairs staff at the NCAA national office to make sure prospective student-athletes in Divisions I and II are best prepared to succeed in college athletics (Division III student-athletes are not subject to the same review). The NCAA Eligibility Center has partnered with organizations like the National Federation of State High School Associations and coaching associations to learn the needs of its constituencies.

To be certified, prospective student-athletes must register with the NCAA Eligibility Center, pay a $65 fee (thats for most prospective student-athletes; the cost is higher for international prospective student-athletes, whose certifications are more complicated) and submit the required information. That includes graduation date, answers to an amateurism questionnaire, official transcripts and test scores. Once all the information is received, work on certification can begin.

In summer 2009, the NCAA Eligibility Center switched registration to a new website, created to make registration and certification easier for prospective student-athletes, high schools and NCAA member institutions. The site was designed based on feedback from all constituencies and is continually updated as more feedback is received.

When a prospective student-athlete begins registration, he or she first must state that the information that is provided is accurate, honest and complete. If dishonest or incomplete information is uncovered during certification, a violation may be found and the prospective student-athlete or member institution may face consequences.

The prospective student-athlete then answers questions about his or her athletics and academic experiences. The system is pre-loaded with most American high schools, and the amateurism questions are sport-specific and aimed at learning what types of non scholastic athletics experience a prospective student-athlete has acquired.

Throughout certification, prospective student-athletes (and member institutions who have the prospective student-athlete on their IRL or have signed a National Letter of Intent with the school) are reminded of tasks that need completing through e-mails from the NCAA Eligibility Center.

The process can get slowed in a couple of places. Many prospective student-athletes forget to complete their registration, dont submit all the required information or neglect to request final certification (after April 1 of the senior year). Just weeks before classes began at many institutions in fall 2010, only 20,000 of 76,000 prospective student-athletes on institutional requests lists had all of their information submitted to the NCAA Eligibility Center. Without a complete profile, a decision cant be made. Additionally, reaching high schools to confirm information on a transcript can be tricky - especially during the summer when many schools are closed.

When a particular certification appears to take too long, its because something in the information provided by the prospective student-athlete has triggered a closer look, such as an amateurism questionnaire with an answer indicating that eligibility could be jeopardized, an academic transcript with core courses that need investigating, or something else that just doesnt add up.

If its taking a long time, theres usually a reason for it,” Leyden said. But we need to be thorough and fair.”
Once a decision is made, the process is not necessarily over for prospective student-athletes who are not certified. Institutions and prospective student-athletes may appeal decisions of both academic and amateurism decisions. Amateurism is generally handled through a series of committees, and, if a violation of amateurism rules is determined, eventually the student-athlete reinstatement staff and committee. Academic reviews generally are treated through waivers, with committees in Divisions I and II assigned to hear appeals.

Its in the institutions and prospective student athletes' best interests to use every process available to them. They can question the interpretations and debate facts,” Leyden said. Theres a lot at stake.”

But most prospective student-athletes dont need appeals. They submit their information on time, direct the testing agencies to send scores to the NCAA Eligibility Center, and answer all the amateurism questions without raising any eyebrows. Tens of thousands of prospective student-athletes are certified every year without a problem.

But for those who require an extra look? Something in their academic or athletics background generally prompted it. The NCAA Eligibility Center staff takes seriously its commitment to the academic preparedness of all prospective student-athletes and the responsibility to provide member institutions with equity regarding their athletics experience.

We were created to provide ‘one-stop shopping for prospective student-athletes and member institutions,” Leyden said. We want to serve the whole of the needs of the membership in a way that improves every year.”