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NCAA Eligibility: A Mild Polemic

Your one stop shop for the answer to the question, "What is literally the least an athlete can do in high school to qualify for Division 1 athletics?"

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With baseball season ending - and, more terrifying, football season threatening to start in about a month - this is the official dead period here at Anchor of Gold.  As such, this is the season for outre article topics and polemical op-eds.

I'll start with something as interesting as filing your taxes, and as rife for malfeasance and loophole seeking as paying a tax accountant or tax lawyer to file your taxes: NCAA Eligibility Requirements for Rising College Freshmen.

The NCAA's brochure on eligibility starts out with a simple, cut and dry graphic for high school students:

This simple formula will help you meet the 16 core-course requirement:

4x4 = 16

4 English courses (one per year)

+ 4 math courses (one per year)

+ 4 science courses (one per year)

+ 4 social science (and/or additional) courses (one per year)

= 16 NCAA core courses

Easy, right?  Seeing as most students will take 5 courses a year, and most high schools require some formulation of those 16 core courses - and then some - to graduate, this shouldn't be a problem, right?  Do that, meet your SAT/ACT minimums, go to a few pep rallies and dances, and you're set for college, right?

Of course, as Mary Willingham's study at UNC and mounds of anecdotal evidence from college professors, tutors, and academic advisors can attest, many incoming college athletes are not prepared for even the basics of college study:

Mary Willingham said her research of 183 football or basketball players at UNC from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level. She said she worked with one men's basketball player early in her 10-year tenure who couldn't read or write.

Rather than being heralded in her attempt to address, and then hopefully fix, a broken system, Willingham received death threats.  You know, because of American exceptionalism or something.

At this point, you may find yourself wondering how someone can be functionally illiterate after having completed at least four years of English, History, Math, and Science in high school.  Let's see if we can't break it down on a couple of fronts:

1. Despite Being on the Brochure, Those Aren't the Actual NCAA Requirements

The actual requirements are:

Complete 16 total Core Courses, consisting of...

  • 4 years of English
  • 3 years of Math (Algebra 1 or higher)
  • 2 years of natural/physical science (including one year of lab science if your high school offers it)
  • 1 additional year of English, math or natural/physical science
  • 4 additional years of English, math, natural/physical science, social science, foreign language, comparative religion, or philosophy
  • Earn at least a 2.3 GPA in your core courses.
  • Earn an SAT combined score or ACT sum score that matches your core-course GPA on the Division sliding scale for students enrolling on or after August 1, 2016.

In other words, it now appears that the only subject an athlete must take and pass each year is English, they probably have to get to Algebra 2 in Math (or their high school would have to have hidden remedial math courses past Algebra 1, such as "Advanced Math Concepts" or anything else with a name that sounds good, but is a housing area for those who can't do math), they only have to take one lab science (and none if their high school doesn't have science labs, which, apparently, is a thing), they have to take one other English/Math/Science course, and then they can basically fill out the rest of their 4 core courses with electives - all four of them can possibly be in religion.

That seems a lot more flexible, no?  However, they still have to be at least competent in English all four years, right?

Not so fast, my friend...

2. Summer School, Social Promotion, and Online Courses

Hidden in the fine print of the core course requirements is the fact that potential Division 1 athletes may retake any of their core courses before their senior year (technically, before their 7th semester) for a replacement grade.  Further, there are no penalties for taking a course more than twice, even.

Let's use the Science Lab Course requirement as an example.  Let's say an aspiring college athlete - let's call him "Gerald" - enrolls in Earth Science his freshman year.  Gerald struggles with this course, primarily because he takes his phone out in class, doesn't pay attention, never does his homework, and doesn't show up for extra help when offered.  If Gerald fails (which, let's be honest, the school will make it much more difficult on his teacher than Gerald if he is at risk of failing, so everything will be done to give him the chance to pass the class), he can enroll in a watered down Summer School class, where his teacher will likely be even more lenient in awarding a passing grade, provided Gerald does the absolute bare minimum of what is asked of him.  If Gerald fails this, or doesn't show up for summer school at all, he will have three more years and three more summers to pass this class, and the highest grade earned will be the grade that factors into his core course GPA.

What if Gerald still can't pass Earth Science by the end of his senior year?  Here's where it gets interesting.  Potential college athletes do not have to pass that course at their high school.  Rather, they can enroll in potentially dubious online classes at "cash for credits" institutions - some of them affiliated with colleges - that can be completed in as little as a week.

What if Gerald is worried that he won't be able to pass even the easiest of online classes?  Here's where a "fixer" comes in.

In a 2014 Sports Illustrated/Chronicle of Higher Education article "Confessions of a Fixer: How a Former Coach Perpetuated a Cheating Scheme," a former fixer under the pseudonym "Mr. White" explains how easy it was:

"You fail the course by telling anyone I helped you," he says he warned the students. "You fail the course by ever mentioning my name. You fail by not doing exactly what I say."

His fear of being discovered, he says, led him to do much of the coursework himself, sometimes not even telling the players. He made some students believe they were completing the classes, handing them packets of practice problems he had picked up from the math lab at his community college and making sure they logged time in study halls as if they had done the work. After they finished the packets, he would toss them in the trash. Then he would log in to BYU's website to complete the real assignments.

That's how some coaches preferred it, he says, as it assured them there wouldn't be any slip-ups. That also meant that the coaches didn't have to worry about retaliation. If the players had no knowledge of the fraud, Mr. White says, they couldn't hold it against anyone.


Emails he shared with The Chronicle showed how he had instructed students to complete assignments.

"Copy the attachment handwritten," he wrote to one player in January 2012, sharing eight pages of homework answers to "Finite Mathematics." Another student, to whom he had provided the same answers, emailed Mr. White a PDF labeled "fintie math assignments," with a note saying, "Coach this is all the work. Thanks."

Part of Mr. White's success hinged on a series of Adams State lapses: For many years, its instructors had reused the same tests, Mr. White found, with lax oversight of exams. Even when instructors changed the tests, he says, they sometimes labeled the different versions.

The final exam for "Communication Arts II," for example, included versions "A," "B," and "C," written in small print near the bottom, according to examinations Mr. White showed The Chronicle. Once he obtained all three versions, cheating was a cinch.

Several Adams State classes were so easy, Mr. White says, he hardly needed the test keys.

One question on the final examination for Math 155, "Integrated Mathematics I," a copy of which Mr. White shared with The Chronicle, asked students to find a pattern and then complete the blanks in this series:

5, 8, 11, 14, __, __, __, __

Another question said: "A farmer was asked by a passing stranger how many chickens and how many goats he had. He answered that his animals had 62 eyes and 90 legs. How many of each did he have?"

Mr. White says some players finished their classes soon after registering for them. He showed The Chronicle one player's record, which indicated that every assignment and exam had been completed on the same day.

"I give you the homework, you copy it over, the school emails you the tests," he says. "I could do the grade in 24 hours."

Of course, a number of students who would otherwise need help from a Mr. White pass and advance due to "social promotion," which, among younger students, is the practice of moving them onto the next grade regardless of mastery of skills due to the idea that this will help the student's self-esteem.  Ridiculous as this sounds, this is a common practice, especially in the poorer school districts with fewer resources, who can't overload a grade level for financial reasons.

Though I don't like to cite anecdotal evidence, for the purpose of brevity, I will.  A good friend of mine taught for a few years at an inner city school in the Midwest which made the teacher devise a test for students who had never once (or only a few times) shown up in class.  Further, this teacher was urged by the administration to pass each student, regardless of the results, so they could continue to qualify for their NCLB Federal Funding.  For obvious reasons, I can't reveal any more than that, but know that this practice is more common than you would want to think in poorer school districts, and it was one of the primary reasons this person - an extremely talented educator - decided to quit teaching altogether.

3. The GPA Question

Those of you clinging to the idea that there are still some non-malleable standards are likely to say, "But still, the kid has to get a 2.3 GPA, right?"

In short, no.  That 2.3 GPA requirement only pertains to the 16 core courses, which all but those started in the student's senior year may be retaken ad infinitum.

In addition, not all GPAs are created equal.  Grade inflation aside - and trust me, I could write a book on this practice alone - not all schools follow the A, B, C, D, F (4.0, 3.0, 2.0, 1.0, 0.0) scale.  Many offer a plus/minus grade scale, which looks like this: A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-, D+, D, D-, F (4.3, 4.0, 3.7, 3.3, 3.0, 2.7, 2.3, 2.0, 1.7, 1.3, 1.0, 0.7, 0).

Further, many schools have various weighted GPAs, which would take forever to break down, so I won't include all the various combinations.  There is also the oddly common practice of private schools weighting all classes as Honors, using a non-decile grading scale, or both.

The following is the grading scale at many private and independent schools:

A+: 96-100

A: 90-95

A-: 85-90

B+: 82-84

B: 78-81

B-: 75-77

C+: 72-74

C: 68-70

C-: 65-67

D+: 63-64

D: 61-62

D-: 60

F: 0-59

In short, that 2.3 (C+) GPA in Core Courses can be done under that grading scale with a 72 average across all 16 courses.  Augment that with the Summer School bump, the fact that many courses can be repeated or taken on dubious online courses, the fact that "athlete courses" like "Public Speaking" and such can technically be counted as a Core Course, and the existence of "fixers" for those who need even more help than this, and we're starting to get there.

4. The Sliding SAT/ACT Scale

When I was in high school, athletes were told they needed to get a 700 combined Math and Verbal SAT (1600 was the max score) score to qualify.  Even then, this was laughably low, as you got a 400 for signing your name alone.  As such, this was a joke amongst athletes (and most others) at my high school.  If you didn't want to tell people what you got on the test, you'd say something like, "I qualified" and laugh it off.  On the flip side, if someone did quite poorly, but you wanted to cheer them up by adding a bit of levity, you could do some iteration of the joke, "At least you can play D1 football now."


Student 1: How'd you do on the SAT?

Student 2: I barely cracked a 1000...

Student 1: How fast is your 40?  Haha.

Still, that score of 700 was a difficult achievement compared to what athletes may be able to qualify with now.  Consulting the SAT Percentages link, you learn that a 700 puts you at somewhere around the 7th-8th percentile (92-93% of students scored higher than you) nationally.  That's low, surely, but nothing compared to the current sliding scale.

Pressures from test anxiety groups and coaches who wanted to get more students academically eligible likely led to the scale you're about to see (I'll show some, but not all of the chart for the purpose of brevity.  For the full chart, click here and scroll down):

GPA/ Test Score (Verbal and Math Combined)/ Percentile

3.55/ 400/ <1%

3.30/ 500/ 1-2%

3.00/ 620/ 4-5%

2.75/ 720/ 9-10%

2.50/ 820/ 25%

2.30/ 900/ 35%

2.00/ 1020/ 58%

Of course, many athletes do not take the SAT, opting instead for the easier ACT.  Feel free to consult the chart linked above for information regarding the ACT.

In short, a good portion of incoming D1 freshmen will be in the lower quartile, and potentially the lower decile.  Of course, test scores aren't a perfect indicator, but added into everything else in this article, it tells a portion of the story.

Of course, if you can't meet even these pedestrian requirements, there is also the Special Admissions Process.  Here are a few notable stats from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and US News and World Report:

  • Football players average 220 points lower on the SAT than their classmates. Men's basketball was 227 points lower.
  • University of Florida won the prize for biggest gap between football players and the student body, with players scoring 346 points lower than their peers.
  • Football players performed 115 points worse on the SAT than male athletes in other sports.
  • The differences between athletes' and non-athletes' SAT scores were less than half as big for women (73 points) as for men (170).
  • Many schools routinely used a special admissions process to admit athletes who did not meet the normal entrance requirements. More than half of scholarship athletes at the University of Georgia, the University of Wisconsin, Clemson University, UCLA, Rutgers University, Texas A&M University and Louisiana State University were special admits. . . At Georgia, for instance, 73.5 percent of athletes were special admits compared with 6.6 percent of the student body as a whole.

Of course, if you don't meet these requirements, you can always go to Junior College - where the lone requirement is the ability to sign your name on a form - and then transfer into a D1 college in a year or two.

What does all this mean?  Again, this is the dead period in college sports reporting, so we're going to dig a little deeper.

Your thoughts?