First Academics, now Amateurism: The NCAA Clearinghouse Expands Its Scope – February 2007

Sandra Brown, currently a school counselor at Collins Hill High (GA), remembers the “good old days,” before NCAA Academic Clearinghouse existed. Back then, she worked for a university and, Brown explained, she was the Clearinghouse.

“I used to be the person who certified every athlete that came through,” recalled Brown, still sounding somewhat overwhelmed. “I remember calling high schools, having to get the 48-H forms [the list of NCAA approved core courses], having to figure out the core GPA myself…. When I left and came to the public schools, I was like, ‘Oh, now they have the Clearinghouse,'” laughed Brown.

Though the NCAA has managed the academic certification process for over a decade, this past November signaled a significant addition to the Clearinghouse’s responsibilities. Any student-athlete intending to enroll in an NCAA Division I or II institution for the first time on or after August 1, 2007 must fill out the new NCAA Amateurism Certification questionnaire.

“The Clearinghouse from the academic side was created for many of the same reasons that we are now creating the amateurism piece,” reflected Bill Saum, the NCAA’s director of membership services/amateurism issues. “That was to bring consistency to the eligibility status of the enrolling perspective student-athlete. More specifically, what our membership found was that our institutions were interpreting core curriculums differently. So, the membership decided that it was important for consistency sake and so that the institutions were on the same playing field.”

“About two years ago,” Saum continued, “[NCAA] President Brand decided that we needed to add the amateurism certification process to that Clearinghouse because our institutions were coming to different decisions on the same student-athletes. So, we’re looking to bring some consistency to the interpretation and eligibility.”

A WELCOME CHANGE
For most schools, especially those with international student athletes participating on their teams, in-house amateurism certification has been, to say the least, a trial. “There are so many countries in the world,” recalled Keith Grant, an Associate Athletic Director who deals with compliance at Rutgers University, “and each country had a different standard for amateurism. And we have a very old, archaic and Victorian definition of amateurism,” he laughed, “so it was always challenging to try to find information on a student. And you were never 100% sure. You asked the questions and you got the answers. You tried to document things as much as possible, follow up as much as possible. You’d have language barriers some times. All you could do was what a reasonable person could do and make a decision.”

Looking at the big picture, Old Dominion University’s Compliance Coordinator Jeff Wilson expects the new component will ease the pressure of the coaches he works with who were beginning to say, “‘Hey, well so-and-so college is doing this,’ or ‘So-and-so college said this person is still an amateur, why don’t we?’ There’ll be one final answer and everyone has to abide by that answer. That,” Wilson added, “is going to benefit everyone.”

“I think the Amateurism Clearinghouse is a step in the right direction for Division I and II,” agreed Grand Valley State University’s Lisa Sweany. “It takes that certification out of the institution and puts it in somebody else’s hands. That’s what needs to take place. We’re finding, particularly on the international side, more and more student-athletes coming in.” As Senior Associate Athletic Director, she is Grand Valley’s compliance staff and, she said “it’s difficult for us who don’t have a staff to really research these teams that some of these student-athletes have been involved with to determine whether they’re still an amateur or not.”

“I’m more concerned with the application of it – particularly in the first year,” admitted Sweany. “Making sure we get the word out to those student-athletes that it’s important that they get this taken care of as soon as possible. And knowing that I, as Compliance Director, can’t process things or speed things up. It all has to be done by the student-athlete. That’s probably what has me most concerned. Unfortunately, not all student-athletes are as on top of it as they need to be. I talk to a lot of the recruits that come on campus,” said Sweany, “and it’s amazing how many of them, when I mention the Clearinghouse, have no idea what I’m talking about. And these are seniors!”

THIS IS NOT TEST RUN
The old saw is, “Never buy the ‘first’ of anything” – cars, computers, software…but the NCAA doesn’t have that luxury. As the amateurism piece takes its first baby steps, “everything’s a first for us,” acknowledged Saum.

“The pressure is going to be between April and August for the final certification. But next year, I think the pressure is going to be between April and October for those early signings. Coaches are going to want to know in July, August and September who they should be chasing around the country, and who they should be making home visits to.” Saum hopes coaches will be able to know almost immediately whether a young person will be eligible or not, allowing them to make better recruiting decisions. He also needs coaches to help the student-athletes to sign up.

“The earlier they register, the earlier we can render a decision on their amateurism status,” Saum explained. “And if, in fact, we have to do some further review, it will give us more time. It’s our intention to be very efficient and very timely with these decisions.” Additionally, said Saum, “if they have information about the young person, they need to share that so that we can do a thorough job reviewing submissions.”

Clearly, if some student-athletes struggle getting registered, the new amateurism piece could simply put up another roadblock, not just for American athletes but for international students who may be unfamiliar with the process. “We’re asking basketball coaches that when they get in front of groups — high school coaches and prospective student-athletes — to assist us in reminding these young people to register,” said Saum. “We are developing some PSAs to be run internationally on our international feeds to encourage young people to register. We’ll also see PSAs in the late winter and early spring that are directing young people and their parents to NCAA.org where there’ll be a variety of information.”

On the website itself, the NCAA has made a concerted effort to avoid using, as Saum put it, “NCAA language” in the phrasing of the amateurism questions. “We think we’re pretty user-friendly from the standpoint that key words in each question – if you put the mouse over the top of the words to get the definition. Also, for instance, if you’re working on question number one, we have a list of FAQs that pertain specifically to that question. Technology has been able to do a lot for us. Not only in sharing more knowledge with the young person, but in making it very efficient for them to get their questions answered.”

“And, while this is a new process, it is going through the same old house,” Saum noted. “We’re not creating a whole new mechanism. It’s all one fee. It’s all one website, and it’s pretty efficient for our young people.”

HIGH SCHOOLS…and CLUB TEAMS and AAU
In preparing for the launch of the new certification process, the NCAA has made sure to consult with many representatives from the high school community, be it the principal, guidance counselor, high school coach or the high school federation because, explained Saum, “we believe that we need to work through the high schools.”

“I don’t want that to seem like a naive statement,” he added. “Certainly these young people are spending a great deal of time in the AAU and club system. In our guide to protect the student-athlete, which is online and distributed to the young people through their coaches in the summer, there’s a great deal of information about the certification process. We’ll continue to communicate with these folks.”

Of course, simply getting the information out to non-scholastic coaches doesn’t mean their audience will listen or learn. “Being on the AAU circuit,” said John McGraw, currently coaching at Notre Dame Prep (MA), “I know they make the tournament directors show the NCAA’s video, and it’s an absolute joke. No kid pays attention in those meetings. From the brightest to the dumbest, there’s not one kid who pays attention.”

For McGraw, too, the high school environment is key. “In the school setting, it’s important that the kids understand exactly what is a core class and how many they have to take. Now that it’s up to 16, that’s four core classes that they’re going to need starting next year. It’s important that they understand that. If you fail — in a public high school most of these kids are taking four or five cores a year – it’s important to know that if you fail one, you’re in trouble.”

“That’s the role of the HS coach,” reiterated McGraw. “They really need to be on top of that, because that’s someone the kid is going to listen to, someone they have some respect for. I’m always surprised,” he said, “when I talk to somebody who is considered a high profile [high school] coach, when I talk to them about academic stuff, a lot of times they really don’t know.”

“If you want the kids to meet the requirements then don’t you think that the people in charge should know what the requirements are so that they can pass that information down to the student athlete?” McGraw wondered. “Maybe the NCAA requires that the coaches attend a seminar — an hour or a half-day workshop. If you want to be an assistant coach in college and go out on the road recruiting, the NCAA requires that they pass a specific test in regards to the rules of recruiting. Maybe coaches should have to pass a test stating that they understand the [Clearinghouse] requirements.”

COLLEGE COACHES: Meet Your Compliance Director
ODU’s Wilson is all over getting information out to his coaches. “We’re going though some different pieces on how to properly educate our coaches in understanding [the amateurism part], because they do have a lot of questions since they are highly involved in the international recruiting world. They are getting some questions from recruits and they want to be able to advise them correctly. And they don’t want to have to worry that if the recruit fills out some questions on the amateur piece the wrong way that they’re going to lose their eligibility forever.”

If Emporia State University’s Compliance Assistant Becky Henry could give a coach one piece of advice it would be that “the earlier the kids can get their things into the Clearinghouse, the smoother it’s going to be and the sooner we’re going to know where they stand and if there’s anything that can be done to remedy their shortfalls, if they have any. To me, the bottom line is the coaches communicating with their athletes.”

Additionally, coaches shouldn’t hoard information. “You know the [recruits] you’re really serious about coming to your school, so go ahead and get them requested as soon as possible so we know where they stand. Because the Clearinghouse will not do an evaluation until a college has requested it be done,” explained Henry. “Even if the kid has registered (as recommended) at the end of their junior year. The Clearinghouse is not going to evaluate their transcript until a college requests that to be done.” Which can be quite the surprise for an applicant who thinks simply registering means they’re “approved.”

Coaches should use the compliance office as a resource, encouraged Rutgers’ Grant. “When they have a prospect and they’re very serious about that prospect, you may want to ask your compliance person to do a pre-screen on that person and see where they stand academically.” The compliance person can then provide you with advice that the coach can then share with that prospect. “Sometimes in the last minute they’ll unload something and it becomes more difficult. Or they sign someone to a scholarship and then after the fact it’s, ‘Oh, this person attended this high school. Oh, boy. Why didn’t we think about it? This high school is on that list.'”

HIGH SCHOOL COACHES: Meet your Guidance Counselor
“Typically, high school counselors get overwhelmed with a bunch of different college admittance stuff, including working with [potential] college athletes” said Amanda Harting of the American School Counselor Association. “A typical high school, especially if they’ve had a college athlete in the last five years, is pretty familiar with [the Clearinghouse]. Ideally,” Harting continued, “a conversation between the varsity coaches and counselors should be going on, especially if you have college-bound athletes. They should be communicating regularly on the progress of that student, as well as reaching out to their academic teachers to see their progress in that area.”

“One thing we do here, and I’m sure it’s not uncommon,” said Mary Broderick, counselor at Mother of Mercy High School (OH), “is we have an informational night for student-athletes and parents. That’s [Athletic Director and head coach] Mary Jo Huismann, myself and a panel of parents just to talk about the whole process – including a piece about the Clearinghouse. Basically, it’s not hard, as long as you get the word out to the kids. They do it all online, then they turn the information in to us. We keep it in our offices and send in the appropriate transcripts whenever they come out.”

“The relationship between the coach and the counselor could – and many times is – overlooked. But that’s a broad generalization,” noted Harting, “and can depend on what the counselor’s load is, how involved the parents are, and how involved outsiders are – if anyone’s reaching out to the coach on the University side.” In the best of worlds, she said, the high school coach and school counselor are working together to figure out what’s best for the student-athlete. This collaboration is especially important if the coach is not part of the school’s academic teaching staff – something that has become more common in girls high school basketball.

COMMUNICATING ON ALL FRONTS
Wilson underscores the importance of an active and informed support system at the high school level. “The biggest gap is the folks that are currently having any impact or oversight on the recruits,” he said. “Whether that’s a parent or a high school guidance counselor; whether that’s an AAU coach or high school coach; those are, unfortunately, the individuals that are not as educated.”

“Our coaches are communicating this [information] in the limited time they have to communicate with these recruits. They are able to relay this information. But, that’s lost in the shuffle when it’s not reinforced or understood by the guidance counselor or somebody at the high school or mom and dad who are going to have to make sure it gets done.”

Clearly, moving forward and supporting the student-athletes around the academic and amateurism parts of the Clearinghouse is about collaboration between the coaches, counselors and compliance directors-not to mention parents. But, while Bishop McGuinness High School (NC) guidance counselor Carol London is very clear on the benefits of athletic participation (“Teamwork, learning how to carry success and not let it get the best of you. That’s the good stuff that they learn in athletics.), she is clear where the balance should be in the student vs. athlete equation.

“We all need to be working together towards the same goal,” said London. “One of the things that we all try – and I think the coaches would say the same thing – we try to say to the athletes, “Don’t put all your eggs into that one basket. Because athletics…there are a lot of things that could happen that would mean you can’t play. But you’ve got to make a living. You can’t rely solely on your athletic ability. You’ve got to keep the academics in the forefront.”

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