Each school year, hundreds of student-athletes in the Tampa Bay area gather inside their respective school gymnasiums, conference rooms and cafeterias to sign national letters-of-intent to play sports at the college level at their chosen university or college.
But if future college prospects aren’t careful, moments like these may shrink as standards toward becoming a Division I and Division II student-athlete have become slightly more difficult.
In April, the NCAA decided to increase requirements for initial eligibility for NCAA Division I-bound athletes entering college on or after Aug.?1, 2016, and for student-athletes who plan to enroll at a Division II college or university on or after Aug.?1 of this year.
Division III institutions are permitted to hold student-athletes to the same academic standards as non-athletes. The new requirements could lead to hundreds of aspiring college prospects being turned away for struggling in the classroom.
“If schools and kids don’t start to be proactive, 43 percent of basketball recruits and 35 percent of football recruits will be academically ineligible,” said Dan Eassa, executive director of Tampa-based FreeRecruitingWebinar.org, who based the percentages on comparisons from the graduation class of 2010 to reflect new NCAA standards.
On March 3, Eassa held a recruiting and eligibility seminar at the Sun Dome. More than 500 students and parents from close to 80 schools throughout the Tampa area participated. One of the essential discussions was the new requirements.
To meet the new Division I initial eligibility standards, students must complete 10 of the 16 core courses before their senior year. Seven of those courses must be in math or science. To become a full academic qualifier, which would make the athlete eligible to receive a scholarship, practice and compete, he or she would have to maintain a minimum course grade-point average of 2.3 and meet the appropriate test score sliding scale.
For example, an SAT score of 1,000 requires a 2.5 core-course GPA for competition and a 2.0 high school core-course GPA to redshirt. An academic redshirt is an athlete eligible to receive a scholarship and practice, but will not compete in the first year.
Eassa said the new sliding scale for the SAT and ACT tests would call for a 180-point increase on the SAT and a 14- to 17-point increase on the ACT from the previous standards, not including the written portion.
For Division II-bound athletes, the course core requirement has increased from 14 to 16. Students must now take additional courses in English, math or science and an additional core course from those subjects or foreign language, comparative religion/philosophy. There were no changes to the core course GPA requirement in Division II, which remains at 2.0, with the minimum SAT score of 820.
Eassa said failure to adhere to the new requirements will be detrimental to potential college prospects.
“If they don’t retake the grade right now, it’s going to matter,” he said.
The Division I Board of Directors adopted the increase in academic standards to make prospects more prepared for college courses.
“Higher education is taking higher education very serious,” said Elliot Hopkins, director of educational services for the National Federation of High School Associations. The NFHS leads the development of educationally based interscholastic sports and activities for 50 state high school athletic associations.
“The days of kids barely sliding under the bar to get into college is going to take a serious hit,” Hopkins said. “The NCAA is going to dispel the whole dumb jock persona.”
Each guidance counselor at a Hillsborough County public high school was issued the information regarding the NCAA’s new requirements. Tommy Tonelli, the boys varsity basketball coach and guidance counselor at Wharton, said the increased requirements for Division I prospects would prevent seniors from retaking the failed courses online or at night school since grades earned in 10 required courses that are required before senior year are locked in for GPA calculation purposes.
“There’s much less margin for error in the first three years of high school,” said Tonelli, who played basketball and coached at the University of South Florida. “Division I-caliber athletes realize they’re prospects and people start recruiting them and a lot of times they try to make up for shortcomings as a ninth-grader, when they didn’t realize these opportunities would be available to them. The trend was to try to jam in all these courses online or through credit recovery and credit forgiveness. That’s what the NCAA is cracking down on.”
Tonelli said he expects there will be an emphasis on retaking failed courses by a student’s junior year. He said students should attempt the SAT and ACT by the end of their junior year at least once if there is a possibility to be a Division I recruit.
“They can’t substitute those grades later,” he said.
Per Florida statute, a high school student must have a cumulative 2.0 GPA on a 4.0 unweighted scale, or its equivalent, at the conclusion of each semester to be academically eligible during the next semester to participate in sports. A survey conducted by The Sports Journal, however, determined student-athletes in 94 of 125 schools from 48 states could be eligible to participate in athletics with a GPA of 1.0 and less.
Hopkins said if school districts were to raise the minimum standard to participate in high school sports, it would not be widely accepted. He said close to 8 million high school students participate in sports across the U.S.
“I don’t think they can,” he said. “There are 51 states with 51 different criteria and they report to their respective school boards. In urban areas, in some areas where grades aren’t up to par, to increase the minimum might not be perceived as fair.”
But with millions of dollars at stake in scholarships, championships and television deals, Hopkins said schools can’t afford to wait on their prize recruits. In addition, poor performances in the classroom affect a college or university’s APR and graduation rates, as was the case with Southern University’s men’s basketball team. The team’s academic issues resulted in the NCAA stripping the program of scholarships and practice time, along with a postseason ban for 2012 and a warning its membership could be restricted.
“This is business and they take this very seriously,” Hopkins said. “You’re looking at a quarter of a million dollars in scholarships. You have to be academically ready. It’s too much money to waste on a kid who can’t spell.”