Freshman athletes cleared by NCAA

by Tim Klobuchar

While the NCAA has been constantly changing its academic requirements for incoming freshmen in recent years, student-athletes with grade point averages over 3.5 probably didn’t give any new regulations much thought.
This fall has proven, however, that they may have to worry in the future.
An alteration in English requirements for freshmen athletes that took effect this year wreaked havoc at Division I schools across the country — Minnesota included.
This summer six incoming Gophers freshmen were initially ruled ineligible to compete in athletics because they did not meet the NCAA core requirements in English. The rulings stemmed from the new NCAA requirement of four years of high school English, as opposed to the old standard of three years.
What made the Gophers’ situations strange was that four of the six affected athletes had high school GPAs over 3.5, and another was at 3.44 (one GPA was not available). And ironically, in several cases the athletes ran afoul of the NCAA because they took tougher English classes than their peers. The NCAA either did not deem those classes acceptable or didn’t grant full credit for them.
Most of the Minnesota cases have had happy endings, however. After the University’s compliance office got involved, the NCAA cleared, in separate teleconference hearings, four of the six athletes to play this year. The most recent pardon was granted Tuesday to Jenny Hennen of Anoka, a four-time All-American swimmer with a GPA near 4.0. The other two cases are still pending.
Hennen ran into trouble because of two quarters (seven credits) of English she took as a post-secondary student at Anoka Ramsey Community College during her senior year.
The NCAA Clearinghouse, instituted in 1993 as the central decision-making body in such cases, did not give her full credit for the classes. It did so in spite of a Minnesota law that states seven credits of post-secondary English equal one year of high school English.
“The NCAA just didn’t understand the post-secondary classes,” Hennen said. “I was surprised when they first said I wouldn’t be eligible, but I wasn’t worried at all. I knew I’d done what I was supposed to do.”
Hennen said officials at her high school communicated frequently with the Clearinghouse to debate what classes would fulfill the English requirements, and blamed the NCAA for being too vague about what classes are appropriate.
“They need to specify more,” said Hennen. “If they’re not going to clarify which classes we should take, how are we supposed to know if we’re taking the right ones?”
But according to Kathryn Reith, director of public information for the NCAA, the poor organization of the students’ high schools create the confusion.
“In most cases the high school didn’t check the list of approved classes,” she said.
The disorder has been amplified by the tardiness of the NCAA’s replies. Jenny Bruun, a golfer from Crookston, didn’t find out the NCAA did not accept all her English classes until mid-July.
The result has been a mountain of paperwork for the University’s compliance office.
“Half of our cases have involved the new English requirement,” said Frank Kara, assistant director of compliance. “It’s been the anomaly of the year. I’ve never seen this many of the same type of case in one year.”
Fortunately, most of the Gophers have been cleared to play thanks to a system that allows the deficiencies to be waived if a NCAA committee agrees that the student performed well enough in high school, especially in English.
Still, while nearly everyone involved believes four years of high school English is necessary, the process clearly has some kinks that need to be worked out for the student-athletes’ sake. Besides the improvement needed in the communication between the NCAA and high schools, Kara mentioned that the parents and coaches also need to be educated about the new standards.
Chris Schoemann, the director of compliance who has handled all the Gophers cases, agrees.
“We’re punishing the kid,” he said, “when we should be trying fix the system.”