NCAA Sports: Why Letting Colleges Admit Who They Want Will Not Work

Today we had a couple of interesting links to some behind-the-paywall commentary by Jay Bilas of ESPN and a concurrence by Gary Parrish of CBS Sportsline.  The argument here is that the NCAA should not be certifying eligibility of college players, only the schools in question should.

The argument (and to be fair, I have not been able to read Bilas' actual arguments, only characterizations of them by others) is that the NCAA should not be in the business of deciding who is eligible to attend member universities to play sports -- that should be left to the individual member institutions themselves.  Here is how Parrish puts it:

We can debate forever whether Bledsoe was inappropriately given an A instead of a C in Algebra III as a senior in high school, debate whether his transcript should be retroactively changed, and debate what the NCAA should do if that happens. But the ideal situation, Jay thinks (and I agree), would be the NCAA someday soon taking a step back and letting Duke admit and play who it wants to admit and play, Kentucky admit and play who it wants to admit and play, West Virginia admit and play who it wants to admit and play, and on down the line (provided the players are still amateurs by the NCAA's standards).

I appreciate this argument, and in a more perfect world I would agree.  But unfortunately, our world is just too imperfect, full of too much situational ethics, too many convenient rationalizations, and just plain too much dishonesty.  I hate to say that there are dishonest people working at NCAA member schools, but I firmly believe that to be the case.

Let's use a real-world example.  Let us say that Jay Bilas' suggestion was in place when Derrick Rose's test was suddenly declared invalid.  Memphis could, for example, simply state that that ETS had not proved its case to their satisfaction, Rose had passed his classes in college, and therefore there was no logical reason why he should be declared ineligible or that Memphis should have to vacate a thing.

You would think that I would like that outcome.  Follow me past the jump to find out why.

I have often complained that there was no critical examination of the process that ETS used to invalidate the exam.  ETS has not really offered any explanation other than the lack of a timely response by Rose to its queries and the handwriting expert's testimony, but that seems rather arbitrary and capricious when what you really have in the end is just the word of a handwriting expert.

But the fact of the matter is, Memphis would have required a passing entrance exam score as well as a certain minimum GPA to qualify for admission.  By inserting itself into ETS' place as a judge of something they are unqualified to certify, i.e. the validity of a test result, they would have failed to enforce their own standards and rationalized away ETS' concerns as invalid.  Why have ETS if their word means nothing?  The NCAA arguably gave ETS' word too much weight, but I argue they deferred to the expert, which is, I think, a good thing.

Colleges depend upon third parties such as secondary school systems and ETS to provide them with honest expertise in the presentation of academic credentials.  Colleges are not set up to gainsay these authorities, but that is exactly what letting them call the shots would inspire them to do.  The college has a desired outcome, and they would find a way to rationalize that outcome and get around enforcing their own admissions requirements on an ad-hoc basis.  Money is a powerful motivator, and the rationalization that they could do a lot of good by letting through a little bad would look attractive to far too many institutions.

At the end of the day, some third party is needed to referee these diverse schools and standardize requirements for admission to prevent just this sort of situation.  Right now, that third party is the NCAA.  Now if Bilas had argued that the NCAA aught to pay a disinterested third party to evaluate and investigate questions regarding academic standing, I might agree. 

I think the NCAA is too close to the problem, and I think it predisposes them to certain outcomes in certain situations.  Certainly the schools would feel better about the NCAA if they were not the ones declaring their kids ineligible, but merely acting on such a declaration.

But as in any endeavor where a more or less level playing field is required, someone must be an official and fairly judge infractions and qualifications.  I don't think that can be changed in this case, and I think that if we went to Bilas' suggestion right now, there would wind up being no standards at all.  Perhaps that is the outcome he thinks should happen -- after all, if education is not really important to "student athletes," who cares what their academic credentials are?  Eammon Brennan put it this way:

At what point, though, does increased autonomy veer into anarchy? That might be a little dramatic, so let's put it more simply: Who keeps the playing field fair? If athletic programs are expected to compete against each other with the same rewards on the line -- tournament appearances, championships, exposure, cash -- shouldn't someone be there to at least try to ensure that playing field is level? If Stanford and Memphis meet in the regular season, shouldn't there be some measure of competitive equality in place?

I think that's pretty much my view as well.  Without a third party, hopefully fair and unbiased, to make sure that schools at least enforce their own standards of admission, how can we ever be certain of any athlete who is admitted?

At the end of the day, Bilas and Parrish will have to wait until that Utopian day when everyone is fair and greed is gone.  I hope we all live to see that, but I'm not holding my breath.

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