Staff Editorial: Clean up NCAA clearinghouse

Exhaustive reports have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post that GW men’s basketball team players never graduated from high school or attended schools where diplomas were earned with little to no academic work. Such reports obviously engender an initially negative reaction to University recruitment practices. The true issues, however, seem to be mostly external to GW athletics operations and practices. Rather, a broken NCAA system for ensuring student-athlete eligibility is to blame.

The NCAA Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse, an independent organization set up by the NCAA to ensure that high school athletes meet the minimum standards agreed to by participating universities, is now the subject of an NCAA investigation into high school accreditation practices. Ostensibly, this is because the clearinghouse has certified players all over the country who have attended a number of prep schools with dubious academic integrity. This summer, the NCAA plans to publish a list of such prep schools, presumably for college recruiters to steer clear of them.

The current controversy here in Foggy Bottom emanates from reports that the prep schools attended by GW forward Omar Williams and guard Maureece Rice in Philadelphia were not actually schools at all, but rather diploma factories where star basketball players go to boost their grade point averages and meet minimum NCAA academic standards. Both Williams and Rice passed through the clearinghouse and met eligibility to play Division I basketball at GW. They also passed through GW admissions standards, which University officials claim are more rigorous and involved than admissions for regular students, since men’s basketball players usually meet with athletic officials and the dean of their school in addition to the normal application process.

Though Sunday’s Post story focuses specifically on GW’s program, for now there is no evidence to suggest that University administrators, officials in the Athletics Department, GW men’s basketball coach Karl Hobbs or the players themselves are involved in any wrongdoing. Rather, a broken certification system and lax standards on the part of the clearinghouse should be the focus of media scrutiny on this issue.

College basketball is an important business for universities, especially GW. It is the only activity on campus with the power to attract every facet of the University community. A successful basketball team can galvanize donors, energize a campus and bring national prestige. It is only reasonable that all universities involved in NCAA athletics trust that the governing body has established a system to ensure athletes have completed the academic standards required by the NCAA. In this regard, the NCAA has failed as a governing body and must work quickly to restore credibility to the clearinghouse.

The clearinghouse, with certification policies widely known to be less than intensive, created a situation in which loopholes were easily exploited. It also created a situation in which college coaches knowingly recruited from the prep schools in question. Regardless, it is unreasonable to expect coaches to independently verify the rigor of each student’s academic curriculum when an institution such as the clearinghouse exists to screen each student’s qualifications for admission. A coach should identify and recruit the most talented athletes possible; the clearinghouse should be the body verifying their eligibility.

While the systemic issues inherent in the certification process are serious, it is not clear that there are any issues at this point that need to be addressed by GW specifically. Williams’ purported academic difficulties prior to enrollment at GW have not prevented him from graduating in four years. There is also no indication that Rice is having unusual academic difficulties. Under Hobbs, it seems that academic achievement and basketball excellence coexist.

The standards for college eligibility are well-known to athletes and coaches alike. Unfortunately, the organization tasked with upholding these standards failed in its mission. The compilation of a list of questionable prep schools by the NCAA is a good first step in addressing this issue. However, the NCAA must make reform of the clearinghouse a top priority to ensure the integrity of college sports everywhere.

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