Granting exceptions: Special admissions play role in NCAA athletics

By Mike Teague

Every year, thousands of student-athletes are admitted to universities around the country to develop athletically and academically. A few of these men and women however, failed to meet the minimum admission requirements set by their respective institutions.

Across the nation, universities of all sizes and backgrounds have created special admissions programs in order to enroll freshmen whom failed to meet the academic standards of the school but possess “special talents.”

NCAA Bylaw 14.1.5.1.1  states, “A student-athlete may be admitted under a special exception to the institution’s normal entrance requirements if the discretionary authority of the president or chancellor (or designated admissions officer or committee) to grant such exceptions is set forth in an official document published by the university (e.g., official catalog) that describes the institution’s admissions requirements.”

Naturally, the thought of unqualified candidates being accepted over students without athletic abilities raises many concerns.

“I get mad when athletes sit at the back of the classroom on their cell phones and don’t pay attention but still pass the class,” said Sarah Kramer, a Texas A&M U. senior. “What about the people who didn’t get into A&M but had better grades in high school? It just doesn’t seem fair.”

Despite the negative view that many hold toward special admission policies, it is worth noting that not all special admissions involve deficient academic performance.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is thinking that if you’re admitted through special admissions that somehow that means that you weren’t academically admissible under normal circumstances,” said Texas A&M athletic compliance education coordinator Brad Barnes. “You have to remember that normal circumstances for admission to the university involve meeting the time deadline. The time deadline for student admission and the deadlines involved in the recruiting process are totally different. We can have kids that were 4.0 students in high school but can be a special admit. This is normal in college athletics.”

Barnes believes that critics of special admission programs are following stereotypes and making faulty judgments.

“It’s bad when people think that someone is a special admit because they aren’t academically of the same caliber as their fellow students,” Barnes said. “That’s not necessarily true. Without knowing anything about that person, that’s just the wrong conclusion to immediately draw.”

Although special admissions include those who fail to meet deadlines, there are a certain number of student-athletes at Texas A&M that would not have been admitted had they not participated in athletics.

“You just don’t know without knowing information that most people just aren’t allowed to have access to,” Barnes said. “With FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act], you don’t know if they’re the academic caliber as their fellow students at that school or if they secured admission through special circumstances.”

The NCAA does offer special admissions to students that are able to perform at a high level in a number of activities including music, dance, art and theatre. A recent report by ESPN’s Outside the Lines however, showed that 35 of 37 special admissions given at Florida State U. in 2006 were to athletes.

A correlation between the number of special admits and athletic success is apparent. The 2010 BCS Championship Game featured two programs that have liberally used special admissions.

From 2004 to 2006, U. Alabama added 19 special admits to the football team. The struggling program quickly turned around and won the BCS Championship in 2010.

Despite not having a special admissions program, U. Texas admits student-athletes on a case-by-case basis with no minimum requirements. This strategy led to great athletic success capped off with a BCS Championship in 2006. However, from 2003 to 2005, the average SAT score for a Longhorns football player was 945, 320 points below the average for a freshman at Texas.

“I think the idea is good for athletic programs,” said junior general studies major Justin Mercer. “It introduces other athletes that otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to attend that college. As a whole though, it takes away the integrity of the school and lowers the standards. People may say that it’s just to make a school look better at sports.”

Even though there are some student-athletes that get accepted without meeting minimum requirements, the social benefit is hard to argue against. Texas A&M’s athletic department emphasizes the importance of education and works to maximize the academic potential of everyone in the program.

“They basically have a whole floor for academics,” said Texas A&M senior Dan Cross, who tutored athletes during the fall of 2008. “There’s computer labs, individual study rooms, classrooms and tutors available at different times. They’re also required to complete a certain amount of study hours during their first year here. There are a lot of resources at their disposal.”

Overall, student-athletes have a slightly better graduation rate than the normal student population. The success rate for African-Americans and Hispanics however, is much higher for those involved in athletics.

Cross attributes this to the effort he’s seen from tutoring athletes.

“In some cases, they just worked real hard at athletics in high school and didn’t have a lot of time for academics,” Cross said. “The athletes I tutored always had their homework done unless they had a question. They were eager to learn and worked really hard during our sessions.”

With all of the controversy surrounding the issue, it is easy to forget that there are actual people involved. Despite whether it is right or wrong, special admissions meet their objective in providing an athlete with an opportunity to succeed.

“Over the years, the amount of success stories far outnumbers the number of people who failed,” Barnes said. “For those who did fail, it’s difficult to say what attributed to that failure. There are not a lot of circumstances in my career though, where there have been people who have failed because they weren’t prepared to succeed.”

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