The Player Chase Manufacturing a Transcript

A Player Rises Through the Cracks

Omar Williams
George Washington's Omar Williams got his NCAA certification despite a shaky academic standing in high school. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

PHILADELPHIA -- When George Washington University signed recruit Omar Williams in 2001, Coach Karl Hobbs called him one of the top 20 high school basketball players in the country. In the four years he has played for the Colonials, Williams has lived up to that potential, starting almost 100 games and helping a mediocre program become the sixth-ranked team in the country.

But Williams was accepted at George Washington after failing to graduate in five years from his original high school and receiving no grades at three prep schools in the next two years, including one that burned down after he was there five days. The National Collegiate Athletic Association certified his transcript without any verification, making him academically qualified for a basketball scholarship.

George Washington said it followed NCAA rules when it relied on that certification in deciding to admit Williams, and said he is on track to graduate in May. But Williams's history illustrates the flaws in the NCAA system set up to preserve the academic integrity of college sports and calls into question George Washington's methods for building a basketball program bound for the NCAA tournament.

"If you knew the circumstances way back, you would probably make a different decision," said Robert Chernak, George Washington's senior vice president of student and support services, who oversees the school's admissions department. "Clearly, you would have to at least researched further the credibility of the [prep] school."

The NCAA, the governing body of intercollegiate sports, would not comment on Williams's record. When reached on his cell phone Friday and asked about his academic record, the 24-year-old Williams said, "I don't mind talking to you," but he said school officials had told him not to speak to a Post reporter.

The NCAA's eligibility certification process is handled by a private company it created, Clearinghouse, which approves high school courses and transcripts of recruits. Under Clearinghouse policy, there was no requirement to check if any of the schools on Williams's transcript existed, if the grades were real or if he attended the schools, said Kevin Lennon, an NCAA official. The SAT scores of applicants, critical for certification, are allowed to be submitted in handwriting, instead of on an Educational Testing Service document. Those scores are not compared to official results, Lennon said.

Lennon is heading a committee reviewing Clearinghouse policies after allegations of academic fraud by independent prep schools like the ones Williams attended. The NCAA declared a blanket amnesty on Feb. 15 for prep school athletes with invalid transcripts, stating that they would not lose their college eligibility.

Administrators at other local universities, including American University and Maryland, disagreed with George Washington's emphasis on Clearinghouse approval in the admission decision. They said student-athletes at their schools go through the same admissions procedures as all applicants.

"The certification by our Clearinghouse should be one of just many factors considered by the institution when they decide to admit student athletes," Lennon said. "It's an important factor, I will give you that. But I think it's even more important that the admissions process on the campus make its own evaluation."

Hobbs recruited Williams after he went 12-16 in his first season at George Washington. He signed Williams even though other coaches said they would not consider pursuing him because of his academic history. Said one coach in the Philadelphia area who had seen Williams's transcript, "We didn't think he had a chance of getting into our school."

A Difficult Start

Williams enrolled at Ben Franklin High in Philadelphia in 1995 but faced immediate academic problems. He told the Philadelphia Daily News in 2001 that he was held back in the ninth grade. "I just hung out with the wrong kids and didn't do much work," he told the newspaper.

"He wasn't a bad kid, he was just lazy," said Ken Hamilton, Franklin's coach at the time. "I knew he had the ability [academically]. His teachers liked him."

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