NCAA Amateurism Certification a Snap for Most, but Cases Can Be Complex
Prospective student-athletes who register with the NCAA Eligibility Center must complete sport-specific amateurism questions designed to get a picture of the prospective student-athlete’s nonscholastic participation. The answers to those questions may or may not reveal an amateurism violation.
The questions are generally the same for most sports. They require a prospective student-athlete to list any nonscholastic teams of which they were a part, whether any type of compensation or expense money was received from someone other than a parent, amateur team or event sponsor, and whether enrollment was delayed from the first opportunity after high school graduation.
The system automatically flags any questionnaire with an answer that could be construed as a violation of the NCAA’s amateurism legislation, which aims to ensure that all prospective student-athletes participating in Divisions I and II athletics are not professionals. The files of prospective student-athletes with a potential violation are manually reviewed by a member of the amateurism certification team.
They are in the minority. Of the 180,000 prospective student-athletes registering each year, over 90 percent answer the questions in such a way that they are automatically preliminarily certified (or receive final certification if it’s after April 1 of the prospective student-athlete’s senior year).
If questions are answered in a way that flags the prospective student-athlete or if the staff is aware of potential violations in advance, the case is intercepted by staff members who screen the case. Often, a prospective student-athlete simply didn’t understand the question and the case is quickly resolved to preliminarily certified status.
In other cases, more follow-up is required. Case managers begin the process of analyzing what the prospective student-athlete reported, identifying leagues or teams that may need to be contacted and originate a dialogue with the prospective student-athlete. If the prospective student-athlete has signed a National Letter of Intent (NLI) or is on only one Institutional Request List (IRL), the institution is involved in the communication, as well.
If the staff finds a legitimate amateurism issue – say a contract with compensation exceeding actual and necessary expenses or prize money from an outside source – the institution and the amateurism certification staff must agree about facts. Geoff Silver, director of amateurism certification, said the facts in most cases are relatively straightforward and not in dispute. If both the NCAA Eligibility Center staff and the member institution agree that the facts point to a clear violation of amateurism legislation, the case is forwarded to the student-athlete reinstatement (SAR) staff, which assigns a penalty. If the institution and the certification staff disagree on the facts, the issue goes to the NCAA Division I Amateurism Fact-Finding Committee or the NCAA Legislative Review Subcommittee of the Division II Legislation Committee, with members from athletics departments and faculty of member institutions. Both sides present their case and the Committee/Subcommittee decides on the facts of the case.
Once the facts are established, the institution can request an interpretation by the NCAA academic and membership affairs (AMA) staff to determine whether the facts constitute a violation. At this point, the facts can no longer be changed unless new information is available that could not have been obtained earlier.
Once the AMA staff issues an interpretation, the member institution can agree and the case can be submitted to SAR. It can also disagree and appear before the NCAA Division I Legislative Review and Interpretations Committee to determine if the committee members interpret the bylaw differently. The Legislative Review and Interpretations Committee decision could be appealed to the NCAA Division I Legislative Council.
Most violations of amateurism legislation occur in two places. In Division II, the organized-competition rule affects many prospective student-athletes who participate in organized competition after the one-year grace period following high school graduation. In Division I, the most frequent amateurism violations result from the tennis, swimming and diving, and women’s volleyball rule and from the “21st birthday rule,” which charges a season of competition for every year a prospective student-athlete participates in organized competition after the 21st birthday and before full-time enrollment. It will be phased out for prospective student-athletes who initially enroll full-time in a collegiate institution on or after August 1, 2011 (August 1, 2012 for tennis).
Agent issues are rare, Silver said, and the passage of NCAA Division I Proposal No. 2009-22 eliminated some violations of the professionalism rule. That legislation loosened regulations prohibiting prospective student-athletes from participating on teams with teammates receiving more than actual and necessary expenses and also required enrollment in college within set periods after high school graduation.
Most amateurism violations occur with international prospective student-athletes, who grow up in a completely different system of sport than the education-based system found in the U.S.
The NCAA Eligibility Center began certifying the amateur status of prospective student-athletes in 2007. The process was centralized with the NCAA Eligibility Center because of membership frustration about determining prospective student-athletes’ amateur status. The rising popularity of club leagues and traveling teams in the U.S and abroad challenged institutional personnel to determine a prospective student-athlete’s amateur status appropriately.
Creating a central process run by the same entity that certifies academic credentials made sense to the membership. It ensures that consistent information is gathered for each prospective student-athlete, and that no institution has an advantage over another based on resources available (staffing, funding) to investigate the prospective student-athlete’s situation.
The membership decided that the function was an important one that needed to be handled by professionals without a vested interest. However, the process of amateurism certification is still considered to be a shared responsibility among member institutions, the prospective student-athlete and the NCAA Eligibility Center. Prospective student-athletes must follow NCAA amateurism rules and provide complete and honest information about their athletics activity before enrollment at an NCAA institution. The certification staff serves as the information-gathering body but does not interpret NCAA legislation, consider mitigation or impose penalties for violation. The staff simply determines whether the information it gathers about a prospective student-athlete meets the standard set forth by the membership. The membership sets the amateurism standards through legislation in Divisions I and II.
“The amateurism certification process is designed to ensure that prospective student-athletes in Divisions I and II meet the NCAA amateurism principles,” Silver said. “The membership established the amateurism certification process because it wanted uniformity and fairness.”
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