NCAA explains role of Eligibility Center

Eligibility center looks at grades, amateur status

jtipton@herald-leader.comJune 4, 2010 

Alabama high school officials said this week that they share the NCAA's reported interest in Eric Bledsoe's academic eligibility and college recruitment. Still, one question can puzzle Kentucky fans: How can a school like UK face potential punishment for playing a player originally ruled eligible?

The short answer is that in these cases — "a very small percentage" each year according to the NCAA — new information surfaces that dramatically changes how to judge an incoming freshman's eligibility. Also the initial ruling on a player's eligibility can be preliminary in nature given that the NCAA's Eligibility Center has less than 55 employees charged with judging whether about 90,000 incoming athletes each year can play for college teams.

When The New York Times reported last Friday that the NCAA was investigating Bledsoe's academic records and allegations of improper recruiting practices, Kentucky noted that the player not only gained the normal preliminary eligibility clearance but also passed what the school called an "extensive review."

Despite those clearances, the Birmingham News reported Thursday that the Alabama High School Athletic Association and Birmingham City Schools would take a new look at Bledsoe's academic eligibility and college recruitment. Birmingham city schools Superintendent Craig Witherspoon planned to meet with the Alabama High School Athletic Association on Monday to discuss Bledsoe, the newspaper said.

Witherspoon told the Birmingham News that The New York Times story prompted the meeting. The Times' story alleged that Bledsoe's high school coach, Maurice Ford, paid several months rent for the player and marketed him to colleges for a price. The Times story also raised questions about the striking improvement Bledsoe made in his senior year after transferring to Parker High School.

These kinds of questions can lead to a review of a player's eligibility. As the University of Memphis learned in the Derrick Rose case last year, that kind of review can lead to a player being ruled ineligible and a school ordered to vacate victories, NCAA Tournament appearances and return money gained from post-season play.

When asked how controversial this 180-degree change in status can be, NCAA spokesman Chuck Wynne said, "You have to remember their membership in the Eligibility Center. One of the reasons (schools) wanted it is they wanted more consistency and standardization in the decision-making process. And they wanted to get it out of an individual school's hands to make decisions."

The Eligibility Center, which is in Indianapolis, determines academic eligibility and whether an athlete is an amateur. In explaining why the Eligibility Center exists, Wynne used women's volleyball as an example. If one school determines that a player from a professional team in Europe cannot be considered an amateur, it would not recruit that player. But another school might judge the player an amateur.

"So they wanted an objective third party to make the decision," Wynne said. "... the NCAA is all about fair play. We want to make sure every team Kentucky played against (knows) Kentucky didn't have an unfair advantage.

"And remember, schools are always going to do what's in their self-interest. That applies to geopolitics and everything else."

In explaining the fairness in a player being judged eligible and subsequently ruled ineligible, Wynne noted that the normal preliminary eligibility review can be a cursory look at the two components that determine eligibility: the grade-point average in 16 core courses and the college entrance exam score.

"No red flags and you're off to the next transcript," Wynne said.

As UK noted, Bledsoe's transcript underwent a follow-up "extensive review." This happens to "hundreds" of applicants each year, the NCAA said.

Such triggers as a sudden and suspicious improvement in GPA or a large number of courses taken in a short period of time or a change of high schools might bring about an extensive review.

Bledsoe reportedly improved his core GPA from 1.9 to about 2.5 in his high school senior year. He also attended two high schools after his first school closed during his junior year.

John Shukie, the NCAA's director of academic and membership services, said such transcripts are transferred from the Eligibility Center for the extensive review at the NCAA headquarters. The NCAA may ask for a statement from the athlete and from academic officials at the high school, he said.

The affected college can be involved. "A lot of times they act as a conduit, getting information from the high school, tracking down information from the student-athlete," Shukie said.

Football, in part because of the sheer number of participants, generates the most extensive reviews.

High-profile prospects do not draw special attention during the initial review, Wynne said.

When asked what he'd say to critics of a system that can punish college programs for playing a player initially ruled eligible, Wynne noted the objective of being fair to the school in question and its athletic opponents.

"If a certain nation in a Southern state that really loves basketball is upset, what we're concerned about is we have fairness across the board for everyone," Wynne said. "We don't have it in for anybody. What we're trying to do is make it fair for everybody."

UK sets summer camps

UK announced Thursday a series of instructional youth basketball camps.

Coach John Calipari and his staff will conduct 10 sessions in five Kentucky cities, with stops in London and Williamsburg on June 14, Somerset and Danville on June 15, Elizabethtown and Bardstown on June 16, Louisville St. Xavier and Louisville Christian on June 25, and Mason County and Newport on Aug. 5.

The camps are open to children in kindergarten through sixth grade. The fee is $75 per child.

Register at www.ukathletics.com/camps. Contact the UK basketball office for more information at 1-800-852-2875.

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