The wait is over for us.
College basketball will be back this Friday, with actual games that actually count on campuses all around the country. There will be 156 real, live games played on Friday, and while that will fill airtime for the cable networks and provide fodder for hacks like me to bloviate about, the season will not be beginning for far too many players across the country.
Which is why it is past time for the NCAA to get out of the initial eligibility game.
Before I get to that, let’s take a quick rundown of some of the players whose eligibility is currently being held hostage. Keep in mind, starting next season, a list like this is going to be much, much longer when the NCAA’s initial eligibility requirements are increased.
Cheick Diallo at Kansas is the most notable name that has yet to be cleared. A top ten prospect from Mali by way of a high school in Long Island, Diallo’s eligibility situation has resulted in him hiring an attorney in his fight against the NCAA. The hold up for Diallo, according to reports from Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, has to do with both his academic history and his relationship with guardian Tidiane Drame, a fellow Malian-American.
The association has requested more than 2,000 pages worth of homework from Diallo’s classes at Our Savior New American, a private school on Long Island that has been in the NCAA’s crosshairs for a while, that he began attending as a ninth-grader. They’ve asked for transcripts from as far back as sixth grade, when he was still in middle school in Mali.
Diallo, for what it’s worth, is already into his second semester of college classes.
Diallo’s high school teammate, Kassoum Yakwe, is still awaiting clearance from the NCAA as well. Yakwe’s teammate at St. John’s, Marcus Lovett, was next to Yakwe in street clothes when the Johnnies lost an exhibition game to St. Thomas Aquinas by 32 points last week; he hasn’t been cleared yet, either.
Ohio State freshman Mickey Mitchell has not yet been ruled eligible. Auburn’s Danjel Purifoy will not be playing this weekend unless the NCAA sorts out what they’ve deemed a questionable ACT score. UMass guard Luwane Pipkins is still await word as well, while former Syracuse commit Moustapha Diagne was forced to go to Junior College after a class that he took in Senegal was flagged by the NCAA.
I’m sure there are more that I’m not even aware of, but by far the most egregious eligibility misstep is Tacko Fall, a 7-foot-6 center at Central Florida. The NCAA told UCF on Friday that it will only be accepting 7.5 of his core courses from high school and that he is no longer allowed to practice with the team, according to ESPN.com. Here’s the thing: Fall isn’t dumb. I’d actually wager that he’s smarter than most of the folks that are working at the NCAA. He had a 3.6 GPA in high school, and while elite prospects tend to have their grades inflated, do they normally get those grades in calculus and chemistry?
Do they usually declare as engineering majors during their freshman year?
Because that’s the case with Fall.
The issue, however, is the high schools that he attended.
Fall is a native of Senegal. He came over to the United States after spending his first two years of high school in his country. When he first arrived stateside, he bounced around from school to school during the 2012-13 school year as he and his family tried to find him a stable environment to learn and play basketball. He eventually landed at Liberty Christian, where he spent two years and earned a diploma. But the NCAA has been looking into that high school, and the fact that he spent an academic year trying to find a landing spot was a red flag as well.
Like Diallo, Fall has hired legal representation and will be filing a lawsuit against the NCAA in an effort to be allowed to play.
Here’s the cruel irony of it all: Fall should be the poster-boy for college athletics. He should be the kid that the NCAA touts as what college sports should be all about. He’s a student-athlete in the truest sense of the word, a kid that is trying to use his God-given gifts — he is 7-foot-6, after all — to better his lot in life, whether that’s as a college-educated engineer, a professional basketball player or both.
Chew on this for a minute: Fall sends the money he gets from his cost of attendance stipend back home to his family in Senegal so his mother can afford to send his younger brother to school. If he’s declared a non-qualifier by the NCAA, that scholarship — that cost of attendance stipend — could end up disappearing.
“We are exploring every option available to us to support Tacko through this process,” head coach Donnie Jones said in a statement released to NBCSports.com.
This is what the initial eligibility process has come down to.
The NCAA has a high school under review, so a Senegalese engineering major that had a 3.6 GPA may not be allowed to play this season. He’s still on scholarship, according to his guardian, Amanda Wettstein, and he’s still attending classes — all A’s and B’s this semester, in case you were wondering — but as of right now he can no longer practice with the team.
If a kid like Tacko Fall cannot make it through the NCAA’s Eligibility Center untainted, then it is time to declare the process broken. It is time for them to get out of determining initial eligibility.
This isn’t a new sentiment, either. A core function of colleges and universities is determining what high school students are worthy and capable of being admitted. There is literally an entire department — probably named the Office of Admissions, maybe you’ve heard of it — where employees are paid by the school to determine whether or not applicants can succeed academically based on those same transcripts that the NCAA uses.
The NCAA’s initial eligibility process replicates that.
And theoretically, it makes sense. The NCAA wants a level playing field and they have to protect that student-athlete ideal. I get it. But the way the system is currently operating, the majority of these investigations tend to be focused on kids from foreign countries or impoverished backgrounds, kids that are trying to use their athletic ability to further an education and, quite possibly, break their family out of a cycle of poverty.
Fall, at this very moment, is getting A’s and B’s in chemistry, calculus and engineering classes at UCF.
And the NCAA is wasting time, money and resources in trying to determine whether or not he’s truly capable of holding his own academically? Is this real life?
More to the point, college basketball games start in 72 hours and there are still players that will not know if they are going to be able to play in them.
Or at all this season.
If the system can’t ensure that a kid like Fall is cleared and if it can’t get all of the paperwork and decision-making done before the games actually begin, then the system is flawed.
And it needs to be changed.