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.
The idea of withdrawing seemed strange, Young said, "but I was willing to do whatever it took."
Young plans to attend Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., this fall.
University of Maryland incoming freshman football player Keon Lattimore followed the same path. A standout at Mount St. Joseph in Baltimore as a senior in the 2002-03 school year, he failed to graduate and repeated 12th grade at Hargrave, where he raised his high school grades enough to meet NCAA eligibility requirements.
Lattimore said he intentionally failed English in the second semester of his senior year at Mount St. Joseph.
"It seems really strange," Lattimore said. "My mom was really mad about the whole process. Four years of high school, she wanted me to get a diploma."
Said Hargrave football coach Robert Prunty, "I cannot tell a kid not to graduate, but I can tell him what the options are."
Prunty said six of 62 members of his team last season were repeating their senior year of high school and that he has five repeating senior football players scheduled to attend this school year. However, he thinks that more athletes will use this technique.
"It's not a big deal, but I'm predicting it could become a big deal," Prunty said.
Chris Chaney, who coaches the post-graduate boys' basketball team at Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute, said he has had players follow this route to achieve eligibility.
"It's usually the college coaches [who] let them know they shouldn't graduate," said Chaney, who previously coached several Washington area private school teams.
Bill Barton, the boys' basketball coach at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., said: "I don't think it's uncommon. I think you'll see one or two [such] kids on prep school rosters."
Players who fall short of NCAA eligibility requirements are not bound by the college commitments made as seniors and are free to sign with another school as they work to improve their scores or grades.
The current sliding scale went into effect in 1995 and was revised in 1996, allowing students to gain eligibility with a 2.5 GPA and 820 on the SAT. A higher SAT score would compensate for a lower GPA, so that a student with a 2.0 GPA could gain eligibility with an SAT score of 1,010 or higher.
Before the sliding scale, the minimums for NCAA eligibility were simply a 2.0 GPA in core courses and a 700 SAT score. The sliding scale was adopted to de-emphasize the SAT score and give more weight to the GPA, which many officials believe is a better indicator of a student's ability to succeed in college.
The NCAA Division I Board of Directors last month rejected legislation that would have allowed high school graduates to take one course after graduation at any school to raise their GPA, a proposal that might have helped players who narrowly missed being eligible.
A player "is going to take the same courses in high school and prep school under either scenario" of graduating or not graduating, University of Virginia football coach Al Groh said. "The difference is whether he gets to hold a degree from the high school he has attended for four years, which would be a nice thing to do. I think it would be a good rule for players if they could graduate and the prep school year be used for [academic] qualification. But just because it's good for the players doesn't mean it's the way the NCAA thinks."
NCAA Division I governance liaison Steve Mallonee said member schools can address the issue if they think the rules are being abused. He said "it is hard to argue against [the fact that the present system benefits those who do not graduate], but the whole idea of purposely failing a class to do that, that becomes a whole lot less palatable for the public to swallow."
"Given the situation the way it is, it forces people . . . to do some things that I personally don't think are the right things to do, but they may be the right things to do for the kid," said George Washington University Athletic Director Jack Kvancz.
Meantime, Jones said the most difficult thing was sitting in the stands on graduation day and watching his peers walk across the stage and accept their diplomas.
"People kept asking why I wasn't walking," Jones said. "That's the hardest part about it. Everybody asked, 'Why are you still here? Why didn't you graduate? Why didn't you get your diploma?' That's something you can't get used to."