There are still so many things we do not know about Kansas freshman Cheick Diallo and his NCAA eligibility case.
We don’t know the specific details about why the NCAA has let this elite basketball recruit’s situation drag into early November — though we can surmise, based on information from KU officials, that the issue stems from his time at a controversial New York private school. We don’t know the specific courses that the NCAA is scrutinizing, or how close Diallo may be to passing initial-eligibility standards. We don’t know if Diallo, a 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American from Mali, will put on a Kansas uniform this season or compete in a college basketball game.
But as Diallo waits in limbo at Kansas, as the prospect of lawsuits and a bitter legal fight looms, as a chorus of criticism builds to a steady rumble, some believe that these aren’t even the most pertinent questions involving the NCAA’s latest high-profile eligibility case.
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The real question, according to Jay Bilas, a longtime college basketball analyst and dogged critic of the NCAA, is why an organization that functions as the governing body for the highest level of collegiate athletics is in the business of determining initial athletic eligibility in the first place.
“The NCAA should be about administering and governing athletic competition, not anything else,” Bilas said. “And this is totally out of its lane.”
Bilas, who played at Duke in the mid-1980s before serving as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski, has strong opinions on the subject. For much of the last two months, he has openly campaigned for the eligibility of Diallo and Central Florida’s Tacko Fall, another freshman big man who has yet to be cleared by the NCAA’s Eligibility Center. Fall, a native of Senegal, is a sympathetic figure. An engineering major at Central Florida — and a reportedly conscientious student — Fall was shuttled from high school to high school after coming to America to pursue a basketball scholarship. His high school transcripts did not pass NCAA muster, and for the moment, he is left in the same predicament as Diallo: considering a lawsuit against the NCAA while he remains sidelined.
“It’s absurd and it’s unreasonable,” Bilas said.
The alternative, Bilas says, is simple: Allow the NCAA’s individual schools to do what they were built to do.
“These are accredited institutions of higher learning that evaluate and admit students as part of their core function,” Bilas said. “And the NCAA has no business in that area. They’re not equipped to do it; they’re not qualified to do it. And it’s a function that makes no difference at all in the operation of a university or in the conduct of athletics.”
In the cases of Diallo and Fall, both were admitted by their respective universities. Both have completed college coursework. Both speak multiple languages. Diallo was accepted to Kansas, arrived on campus in the middle of summer and completed six credit hours during KU’s second session of summer school. He is currently enrolled in the fall semester and a month away from completing another block of college courses.
“Every year, it’s a constant embarrassment to the NCAA,” Bilas said. “They just keep embarrassing themselves. But most people just want their games, so they don’t care.”
The inner workings of the NCAA Eligibility Center — formerly known as the NCAA Clearinghouse — can at times appear clandestine and covert. The process takes place behind closed doors, and given the glacial pace of some cases, the public can be left wondering what exactly is happening inside some office at the NCAA’s headquarters in Indianapolis.
In truth, the process is fairly straightforward. Every year, nearly 200,000 prospective student-athletes register with the Eligibility Center, forking over $75 in fees (more for international students) as the NCAA pores over academic credentials and grants initial eligibility.
For an athlete to become eligible for Division I competition, the NCAA Eligibility Center requires the completion of 16 core courses that are NCAA-approved and minimum GPA and standardized test scores, based on a sliding scale. For example: The higher a player’s SAT or ACT sum score, the lower his accepted GPA becomes, and vice-versa.
The NCAA’s initial-eligibility guidelines will become more stringent in 2016, with students required to complete 10 core courses before the start of their senior year of high school. In most years, few athletes are held up by the Eligibility Center — the number is reportedly around 7 percent annually. But problems arise, coaches and experts say, when athletes attend schools with core courses or curriculums that don’t meet the NCAA’s guidelines — or receive poor advice from a high school staffer.
In Diallo’s case, he attended Our Savior New American, a private high school in Centereach, N.Y., that sends graduates to some of the top academic universities in the country. The school has also drawn scrutiny from the NCAA Eligibility Center. According to the NCAA, Our Savior New American is “under an extended evaluation period to determine if it meets the academic requirements for NCAA cleared status.”
When a school is under review, the NCAA says, individual cases may be subject to further scrutiny on a case-by-case basis, with the NCAA requesting additional documentation. For the last four months, Kansas officials have retrieved additional documentation on Diallo and presented it to the NCAA, maintaining a dialogue. To this point, there has been no resolution.
Bilas sees this whole process as pointless — as duplicative of the work done by a university’s own admissions office. For others, though, the existence of the eligibility center is the result of a trust issue. If the NCAA did not enforce baseline standards, they say, schools would be free to relax admissions standards for athletes and lard their rosters with players ill-prepared for college-level work.
Gerald Gurney, an assistant professor of Educational Leadership and Policy studies at the University of Oklahoma, is a longtime critic of the NCAA and its academic reforms, pointing out the way big-time athletics have diluted the mission of higher education.
But Gurney does see some value in the NCAA’s initial-eligibility standards.
Schools “willingly leverage loose admissions standards with special exceptions reserved for athletes,” Gurney told The Star during an interview last year.
Bilas, though, maintains that the NCAA should not be in the business of evaluating transcripts and high school coursework.
“That’s up to each institution,” Bilas said, “and especially when you’ve got these players that are handling the work on the college level. You want to go back and look at what they did their sophomore year of high school? How is that relevant to their eligibility now? It’s a made-up standard.”
In the court of public opinion, the standard is also a tough sell. With the college basketball season set to open Friday, the cases of both Diallo and Fall have become causes célèbre on social media. On Tuesday night, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt used his platform on “SportsCenter” to advocate for Fall. On Monday, Diallo’s legal guardian in the United States, Tidian Drame, hired legal representation and prepared for a possible legal fight.
Could these cases soon end up in court? On Tuesday night, Kansas coach Bill Self wouldn’t rule it out.
“This is going a big step further,” Self said. “It will be a situation in which we don’t control what’s being said.”
In Bilas’ view, it’s another layer of a fight that doesn’t need to happen. It’s more bad public relations for the NCAA. It’s another college basketball player who should be on the floor. It’s a system that needs to be scrapped, Bilas says, one that feels arbitrary and unfair.
“It’s like they’re taking a fitness test now to see if they can play,” Bilas said. But “the NCAA goes back and looks at his mile time when he was 16 years old. It’s stupid.”
Rustin Dodd: firstname.lastname@example.org, @rustindodd