Saturday, November 7, 2009

NCAA Admissions Standards and Athletes: A Look at the Blurry Line Between Athletes and Students

[Guest writer Tae Phillips takes an in-depth look at NCAA admissions standards for athletes and the real cost of college athletic powerhouses.]

For my opening post here on SportsJudge Blog, I want to share a bit of insight on something that I wrote on while I was law school. We are a little over halfway through the college football season (amazing how time flies) and this topic is probably last on anyone’s mind. For instance, my beloved Crimson Tide is #3 in the BCS and I am already looking at flights to Pasadena and figuring out how I can lowball people on Christmas gifts so I can have more money to upgrade my seat in the Rose Bowl on January 7. People in the Midwest are dreaming Heisman for Jimmy Clausen. On the west coast, fans are crunching the numbers more than an MIT honor student trying to figure out how Boise can sneak into the championship game or whether USC can ride Matt Barkley’s right arm to a hometown BCS showdown. And people on the east coast are…well nothing (sorry ACC fans, just joking).

What people definitely are not thinking about, myself included, is how these guys got into school in the first place? And whether or not they are the reason why Joe Middle Class Somebody is going to community college or working for the man straight out of high school.

I won’t bore you with the ridiculously confusing NCAA standards on admission for student-athletes. I’ll sum it up for you and save you the trouble: It’s not hard to get in. Now, granted, the NCAA sets its own admissions standards, and each individual school and conference has the freedom to fashion their own. The NCAA standards are the bottom threshold only. But, a closer look at the admissions standards for each individual school shows that there is a different standard for student-athletes and regular students.

Although it is a well-known fact that student-athletes can push the limits of a school’s admissions standards, there have been only a few actual documented cases. However, they represent an accurate cross-section of the situation as a whole. For example, Chris Washburn was one of the best college basketball players of his era in the mid 80s at N.C. State. The average SAT score for admitted students his freshman year was 1030. Chris Washburn’s SAT score was 470. Kevin Ross, the subject of a lawsuit in the early 90s famous for coining the term “negligent admission,” was admitted to Creighton despite scoring in the bottom 5th percentile of ACT test takers.

In addition, this policy of admitting student-athletes who are on the bottom fringe, or even below, college admissions standards is not present at only large state universities. Student-athletes are gaining advantages in admissions at academically elite schools like Georgetown, Stanford, and Ivy League schools. So the next time you hear a Vanderbilt, Northwestern, or Duke fan say, “Yeah well we have less to work with because of our academic standards….,” they are right. They do have less to work with, but they are still reaching below their academic standards to try to field competitive teams.

Why is this happening? The recent boom of recruiting, booster involvement, pressure on head coaches, and the fact that college athletics is the biggest money making asset that a school has, all contributes to this issue. Honestly, who has more power at USC? Is it the admissions director, or is it Pete Carroll and his 85-90ish percent winning percentage at the school?

So what’s all the fuss about? Everyone’s happy. Fans are happy because their teams are winning. Coaches are happy because they get great talent. Schools are happy because they’re making tons of money. Who is the only possible person who might not be happy? Well, it might be the person who didn’t get into “X” University because that spot went to an athlete.

I won’t bore you too long with black letter law Constitutional Law, God knows I wasn’t a big fan of it when I was in law school so I doubt that the general person off the street will be enamored by it either. The Equal Protection Clause is your guiding principle. Everyone has a general knowledge of this Constitutional provision. Without getting too technical, basically, all people should be treated the same. Now, judicial scrutiny comes in different levels when it comes to Equal Protection. Basically, any type of racial classification is subject to strict judicial scrutiny, meaning that any type of racial classification is going to have to meet high thresholds in order to be upheld as Constitutional. Race is classified as a “protected class.” The US Supreme Court has declined to ever include University admissions in any type of “protected class.”

The US Supreme Court has not been completely silent on issues relating to higher education. In 1957, the case of Sweezy v. New Hampshire established the “academic freedom” doctrine, allowing schools to have wide discretion in what is taught, who is admitted, etc. There have also been several affirmative action based cases, notably Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1968) (striking down racial quotas in a medical school class); Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) (striking down a points-based admissions policy giving points based on race); and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) (upholding law school admission policy that did not utilize racial quotas).

So, we know that judicial scrutiny is not going to be as high for classifications based on athletic ability as it is for racial classifications. But, really, what’s the difference? There is a class allotment at every school in the country. Athletes are given a certain number of these spots. Athletic scholarships, for all intents and purposes, are forms of quotas.

There are many arguments made for giving preference to athletes. I have heard arguments that it is an indirect form of racial diversity. Well…is the minority who excelled in the marching band getting a drastic break in his SAT score like the DB who runs a 4.4 40? I have heard arguments that athletics is just one of many factors that may give a boost to an applicant. But it is clear that athletics is getting an unusually heavy boost.

As one school official said, “I’m waiting for some father or mother who is a lawyer to take some institution to court on this (because their child wasn’t admitted despite having much higher test scores).” There is room for people to come forward and challenge the current system. In today’s world, where everyone is always feeling wronged and anyone is capable of suing anyone else for anything…is it just a matter of time before this becomes an issue? For every spot in a freshman class that an athlete takes, someone else with a better or similar academic record is going to receive a rejection letter.

To check out the full article I wrote on this topic, you can go here

- Tae Phillips

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