By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 30, 2007
Recent rules passed by the NCAA to crack down on academic fraud by student-athletes allow significant latitude to students with diagnosed learning disabilities, and college administrators expect that some academically struggling athletes may seek to attain their athletic eligibility by obtaining fraudulent diagnoses.
In late April, the NCAA took aim at fraudulent prep schools, or "diploma mills," by ruling that, beginning with the high school senior class of 2008, incoming student-athletes must have completed 16 core courses, two more than previously required, at least 15 of which must be completed in their first four years after enrolling in high school. The rule ostensibly prohibits the practice of "fixing" an academically deficient high school transcript by fulfilling all missing requirements during a year in prep school.
However, students with diagnosed learning disabilities are allowed to take core coursework up until they enroll in college, with no time limitations -- essentially an exemption from the rule.
"There's no question it's out there," said Gary Roberts, the faculty athletic representative at Tulane and a member of the NCAA's Academics/Eligibility/Compliance Cabinet. "Anytime you have a program designed to give some sort of special accommodation for any class of people, there are going to be people who fraudulently try to become a member of that class so they can get benefits they're not entitled to."
Learning disabilities "will be the next area our committee will have to address," said Kim Callicoatte, chairman of an NCAA subcommittee on initial eligibility issues. "It's a floodgate where we're stopping up holes and there are always going to be additional holes some people will try to get through."
The first step toward receiving this accommodation is obtaining a diagnosis. According to NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson, the organization will accept a diagnosis from "a licensed or otherwise properly credentialed professional who has undergone appropriate and comprehensive training and has relevant experience."
"We receive LD diagnoses from psychiatrists, psychologists, pediatricians, neurologists and social workers," Christianson wrote in an e-mail.
The most common learning disorder in childhood is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which occurs in an estimated 3 to 5 percent of school-age children, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. ADHD usually becomes evident during childhood, and the median age for onset is 7, although ADHD can persist in later years and sometimes into adulthood, according to the NIMH.
Various forms of dyslexia and other disorders associated with reading comprehension also are common for those seeking to obtain the LD designation.
Before granting a student-athlete learning disabled consideration, the NCAA requires a signed copy of the most recent diagnosis, diagnostic test results and an individual education plan (IEP) designed by the school district for the student. For students attending private school, the IEP can be replaced by a statement of accommodations on school letterhead. The NCAA then notifies the Clearinghouse, which is responsible for certifying initial eligibility, that the student is learning disabled and allowed to receive the special considerations afforded to such students.
Said Bridget Niland, an assistant professor at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y., and a former associate director of membership services for the NCAA: "There has always been a question about whether [diagnoses] have been legitimate or not. But when someone gives you a diagnosis, it's a diagnosis and you can't really refute that."
While obtaining a learning-disability diagnosis in the latter stages of high school might raise a red flag for some -- one local college athletic administrator dubbed the disorder "NBA DD" -- the diagnosis also could be legitimate, cautioned Diane Dickman, the NCAA's managing director of membership services. Dickman suggested that a student could be hindered by a undiagnosed learning disability throughout his or her schooling.
"Late diagnosis requires a clear explanation of why the diagnosis was not previously detected, which is a component of the clinical interview and reflected in the test summary by the clinician," Christianson said.
In recent years, the number of students receiving accommodations for a learning disability has remained relatively stagnant. There was a significant jump, from 203 to 338 students from the 2003-04 school year to 2004-05, with 335 cases in 2005-06 and 302 in 2006-07, according to the NCAA.
The Clearinghouse certifies 77,000 students for initial eligibility each year.
"The numbers wouldn't suggest that there is some mounting evidence of fraud," Dickman said. "We're going to monitor any kind of academic fraud. If, as we go forward, we see something that is of concern to us or leads us to believe there is something going on that relates to fraud, we certainly would [address] that."
High school and college coaches anticipate the NCAA will be busy. An assistant coach for a team that advanced to the round of 16 in this past season's NCAA men's basketball tournament said he was aware of one player who plans to try for an LD waiver. The coach spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to identify the player or his potential disability in case the coach successfully recruits the player. "I don't think he's ever been tested before," the coach said, noting that he had seen the player's transcript and spoken with the player over the course of the past year. "There's definitely going to be some abuses, no question about that."
One area high school coach acknowledged that some may attach a stigma to being labeled LD, but didn't believe that would stop players from seeking such a diagnosis.
"Some of the kids [seeking an LD diagnosis], they don't have a learning disability. There is a moral dilemma there," the coach said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic. "Do you go to get something you know you're not and then you're labeled from that point on as a kid who is learning disabled?"
Roberts compared the situation to those who falsify documents to qualify for welfare or other governmentassistance.
"I'm sure there are some doctors out there who are big fans of college athletics or their local university and would be willing to bend their ethical standard," Roberts said. "When athletes run up against a brick wall, there are coaches and people out there helping them get over that wall."