Athletes Make the Grade Sooner by Failing First
Loophole Outwits NCAA Eligibility Rules
By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page A01
An apparent loophole in National Collegiate Athletic Association eligibility regulations is leading an increasing number of top recruits to intentionally fail to graduate from high school so they can improve their chances of playing sooner in college.
The athletes -- including two Washington area athletes named to The Washington Post's All-Met teams the past school year -- believe they will not meet the minimum academic eligibility standards for incoming college freshmen. They then intentionally fail a course or withdraw from school because, by NCAA rules, the grades they earn at a prep school while repeating the 12th grade can count toward college eligibility requirements.
One of the players who said he intentionally failed was Andre Jones of Forestville Military Academy, who had accepted a football scholarship to play at Boston College last summer and was on track to graduate. But poor grades as a freshman and a sophomore left Jones unlikely to meet the NCAA minimum standards for freshman eligibility and receive his scholarship.
Jones's mother, Shannon, said she was advised by Boston College assistant coach Keith Willis and the coach at the Connecticut prep school at which Jones eventually would enroll that it would be in her son's best interest not to graduate from high school. Andre Jones said he intentionally failed English during the second semester of his senior year to not meet graduation requirements.
The NCAA determines initial eligibility by considering a high school athlete's final grade-point average in 13 core courses along with scores from a standardized test such as the SAT. The two factors are used in a "sliding scale," meaning the higher the GPA, the lower the test score an athlete needs to be eligible.
"They said because his [SAT] scores weren't as high as they needed for him to be able to come straight to Boston, it would be in his best interest not to pass 12th-grade English," said Shannon Jones, who said she left the decision up to her son. "Then they would let him take 12th-grade English in prep school and then his SAT score wouldn't need to be as high."
When a student graduates from high school, his GPA is locked in place and can be improved only by taking classes at the school from which he graduated, which is often not possible. However, by not graduating, a student can repeat the 12th grade at any school and can still improve his GPA by retaking classes at any school.
Athletes who fail to meet eligibility standards after graduating from high school typically attend a community college for two years and then transfer to a four-year college, often losing two years of playing eligibility. They also can enroll in a post-graduate prep school program and re-take the SAT in hopes of raising their score. But by failing to graduate, an athlete can try to improve his grades and his test score, making it easier to play at a four-year school a year later without a loss of playing eligibility. The one-year delay also can provide an athlete another year to mature physically.
"I think [intentionally failing is] a new phenomenon out there that hasn't been brought to [the NCAA's] attention," said Atlantic Coast Conference associate commissioner Shane Lyons, who is in charge of governance and compliance for the league. "I've heard it more and more over the last couple years."
Said Murray Sperber, professor emeritus at Indiana University and a vocal critic of big-time college athletics, "I guess the message it sends is athletics have priority and academics are secondary and your academic career comes far below in importance than your athletic career.
"Essentially what athletic departments are saying is, 'Don't worry about flunking your senior year, they'll let you in if we tell them.' Normally, this would be a huge red flag in admissions. It would disqualify you from admission to most colleges. It becomes an interesting symbol in how an athletic department rules the admissions process for athletes."
Kevin Driscoll, the football coach at Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Conn., where Jones will play this fall, did not return telephone messages, and attempts to reach Willis were unsuccessful. But it does not appear to be uncommon for prep school or college coaches to inform athletes in danger of not qualifying that not graduating from high school is an option.
"I don't know if it is unethical, I just don't know if I want to tell a kid not to graduate," said University of Maryland assistant football coach and recruiting coordinator James Franklin. "Basically, I give them all the information and let them make the best decision they can. . . . I also know if this is going to be a thing that helps this kid go to college and get a college degree, that's ethical."
All-Met basketball player Sam Young of Friendly High was on track to graduate until May. About one week before semester exams, Young and his mother, Marquet Craig, said they submitted paperwork to withdraw Young from school.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company