|ON THE SIDELINES|
May 8, 1997
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Next, a legal battle over academic standards for college athletes. Joan Cartan-Hansen of Idaho Public Television reports.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Eighteen year old Zach Lawrence wants to play football for Boise State University. In high school he was a top notch fullback, but he was sidelined when he failed to meet the National Collegiate Athletic Association's initial eligibility standards. Under NCAA rules a high school athlete must receive a combined score of at least 820 on the SAT verbal and math test before being allowed to play in any college sport in their freshman year. Lawrence is an above-average student but he has a learning disability that makes it tough for him to process what he reads. He didn't score high enough on the SAT to meet the NCAA's standards.
ZACH LAWRENCE: Just to have someone look at it and just say no, you know, that--that just kind of bugs me because it's like they're not even giving you a chance. They're just kind of--they're just kind of throwing you away. They're just saying, no, you cannot play.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: College-bound high school seniors with learning disabilities are not the only ones who've had trouble with the NCAA's initial eligibility requirement. Ironically, some gifted students have also been denied their certification. The NCAA requires that all student athletes take 13 core courses, and it's the NCAA--not the local school--which decides which courses qualify. Some years and for some students the NCAA accepts classes with titles like Intermediate Algebra or Critical Reading and sometimes it does not. Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone started questioning the NCAA's requirements when dozens of students from his state were denied their initial eligibility after taking advanced level classes.
SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE, (D) Minnesota: It's a problem for kids who, again, took Algebra in 8th grade instead of 9th grade, kids who went on and took classes at the college because they did so well, and all of a sudden--they've worked hard, they've been great athletes, they have a good grade point average--and they think they're getting an athletic scholarship--and then they're told they're not going to get it.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Determinations about academic eligibility are made by a private company hired by the NCAA called The Clearing House. The NCAA ran this ad during the recent national college basketball championship game.
AD SPOKESMAN: If you want to play sports at the NCAA in Division 1 or Division 2 schools:
ANOTHER AD SPOKESMAN: You must be certified by the NCAA initial eligibility Clearing House. Remember, if you're not certified, you can't compete as a freshman in Division 1 or 2.
AD SPOKESMAN: Want to play? Know the rules.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Clearing House was established in 1993 to guarantee a level playing field for the country's Division 1 and Division 2 schools. In years past, a student who didn't meet academic standards of one university was simply involved in another. By setting up a single clearing house the NCAA found a way to stop squabbles among universities trying to recruit athletes with academic problems. Boise State University Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier sympathizes with students like Lawrence, who are caught in the NCAA's bureaucracy, but he says the standards are important.
GENE BLEYMAIER, Boise State University: The NCAA would like to--and best as possible--assure that student and student athletes that come to universities and colleges are qualified to do the work and that there is a good likelihood that these students will go on and be able to graduate. The research that has been done over the years indicates that the higher the standard that the NCAA sets, then the higher the graduation rate of the student athletes that come to the university.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: NCAA officials argue it's better for student athletes who don't meet the initial standards to spend their first year of college concentrating on their studies. If they make the grade after that, then they can play college sports. But Senator Wellstone believes the NCAA may be overreaching its authority.
SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: The question that, you know, I ask, as a former Division 1 athlete and as a college teacher for 20 years, is: who appointed the NCAA to be the super school board for 24,000 schools in this country? It's crazy.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Sen. Wellstone argues that by defining what is an acceptable core course, the NCAA has effectively decided what constitutes a minimum education in America.
SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: The school board association in Minnesota said, we don't want you doing this. I think the National School Board Association is looking at this. I may very well look at this legislatively because I think we now just have had some real injustices.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Lawrence doesn't want to be a victim of what he sees an injustice, so he sued the NCAA, asking a federal court to allow him to play. His attorney, Steve Matthews, says the NCAA's academic standards and its eligibility process are discriminatory.
STEVE MATTHEWS, Attorney: We believe that under the Americans with Disabilities Act that the NCAA has an obligation to evaluate students with legitimate learning disabilities on a case by case basis. Whether it be the core courses, or the SAT scores, they have an obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to examine each student on a case by case basis. And we don't believe that's happening.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: For more than a year the Justice Department has been asking the NCAA to change the way it evaluates learning-disabled students. Since the Lawrence case is in litigation, the NCCA's general counsel declined to comment. Instead, Director of Compliance Services Kevin Lennon sent the NewsHour this videotape of a teleconference for high school personnel. In it, he explains one of several accommodations now being made.
KEVIN LENNON, Director of Compliance Services, NCAA: Students with learning disabilities will be able to submit their own initial eligibility waiver application. Previously, we've required a member institution to do this on the students' behalf. That will no longer be the case for this population, for students with learning disabilities.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Lennon also disputes Sen. Wellstone's allegations about how the NCAA handles gifted students, and he says the NCAA is coming up with new criteria for those students who get stuck in the process. But none of these changes affect Zach Lawrence. What got Lawrence back onto the field was a restraining order against the NCAA. The order allows Lawrence to participate in spring football practice.
ZACH LAWRENCE: I'm the most excited person in the locker room right now. I got there a couple of hours early, and I was just checking my gear, putting it on, making sure it was all right. I'm just excited. I just want to get out there, you know, playing, what I love to do, and just being out here and knowing that I can play without any NCAA rules holding me back from playing.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Lawrence will still need to go to court to settle the issue of whether the NCAA's rules are discriminatory, but if his challenge is successful, it may also force the NCAA to change the way it processes applications for all student athletes.