Corynne Notz was on top of the world.
She was a freshman at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, the college of her choice. She had an athletic scholarship to play basketball and had started pre-season practice for the school’s NCAA Division II junior varsity.
In September, her coach called her in for a talk.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal,” she recalled.
But it was.
Corynne was told that she could not play ball.
What ensued is a cautionary tale for student athletes, parents and school districts, says her father Scott Notz.
Two of Corynne’s high school classes were not accepted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body that oversees college sports. The NCAA certifies the academic and amateur credentials of all college-bound student athletes.
It’s a detailed, lengthy and sometimes confusing process, as Corynne and her school found out.
The NCAA was created to address sports safety concerns in the early 1900s, but now handles almost all aspects of college sports, including amateur status, recruitment issues and academic standards. It can penalize teams and athletes for infraction big and small, from wearing certain tattoos to sanctions against Pennsylvania State University in the Sandusky child abuse case. The latter included a $60 million fine, banned the school from bowl games for four years and deleted its 112 wins from 1998-2011.
But most surprising to some, perhaps, is the high expectations the NCAA has for an athlete’s schooling. It often provides closer scrutiny of coursework than some high schools and colleges, demanding rigor and accountability to ensure that college athletes aren’t allowed to let academics slide.
Into this world of stringent regulations misstepped Notz and a high school that had little experience with NCAA-bound athletes.
The right stuff
Corynne, who plans to major in aerospace engineering, had good grades and college entrance test scores, a high school diploma and college acceptance. She played ball four years at Calhan High School and won her school’s Bull Dog award, given to the student athletes who show the most drive and best work ethic on and off court.
She chose Colorado Christian University because it has a junior varsity development team that competes. Adding to the allure, CCU’s varsity women’s team won the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association Division I basketball championship last spring.
The NCAA’s Eligibility Clearinghouse establishes academic grade points and test score minimums that high school athletes must have for scholarships and participation in competitive sports. But it also determines which specific high school courses meet its standard of academic rigor.
The NCAA ruled that two courses Notz took at Calhan High did not meet its standards.
“I was upset and it seemed like all of my hard work for the past years had just been pushed aside,” she said. “I had put my faith in my high school that they would get it right.”
Dealing with setback
Her father, Scott Notz, who thought he was on top of things, was confused. “All through her high school years, she has been driving for this. She did everything people said to do, so it was a real shock. I couldn’t figure out why she had been able to get into college with those high school classes, but that the they weren’t sufficient for the NCAA. “
He learned that Calhan officials had not warned his daughter that at least one of the classes might not pass muster with the NCAA.
The first course turned down by the NCAA was Senior Seminar, which was considered an English credit by the school, but not by the NCAA. Corynne said the class helped students write resumes and apply for scholarships.
The second class in question was an English composition class she had taken as a sophomore.
“If I had known they didn’t count for NCAA I could have taken a different class or doubled up on other credits,” Corynne says. NCAA rules says that students must have 16 approved core college prep courses.
But once she got in college, there was no possibility of a retake.
The scramble to make things right was stressful, she says.
The NCAA said she could be a partial-qualifier on the team. That meant she could keep her scholarship and practice but she couldn’t play in games or travel with the team.
She said her college officials asked her, “Why didn’t your counselor clear those classes?”
Scott Notz says that when he called the high school officials, “They told me that they had been trying to get one of the classes qualified since May. They redid the paperwork and class descriptions three times.”
Colorado Department of Education told him that it was a district problem. They indicated that next year when common core curriculum goes into effect throughout Colorado it would be easier for NCAA to judge class content, because all classes would be aligned.
But that might not curtail such problems.
NCAA officials say they have been working with state governing bodies. “Their common core and our core courses have the same intention — to prepare students for college. But we have to evaluate those too, to make sure. Sometimes it comes down to case-by-case situations,” said Jeremy McCool, NCAA assistant director of high school review.
Schools must provide details and syllabuses of all college prep offerings in science, math, English, social science, foreign languages and non-doctrinal religious classes. The NCAA each year evaluates about 114,000 courses that are submitted for verification. The results are posted on the eligibilitycenter.org website.
Parents and students can look at the list. But Corynne and her father relied on the high school counselor to guide her class choices.
Rejecting particular classes on an athlete’s transcript is uncommon. “I don’t know how many. It’s a small percentage,” McCool says.
There are more than 450,000 students playing NCAA college sports in three divisions.
Five NCAA employees evaluate the classes submitted review, and most are typical and are approved.
“We only have to drill down further if a course description is lacking or the class work seems off base,” McCool says.
Ron Benton, spokesman for Colorado Christian University, says they take the NCAA rules very seriously. “We make sure that we are following the rules and provide the guidelines to our students.”
However, he said, they have little control over what happens in high school. “We don’t sit at their shoulder and watch them register.”
Only two percent of high school students go on the play NCAA college sports. And at small rural schools such as Calhan, which has 521 students in pre-school through 12th grade, the number is even more infinitesimal. No one could remember the last Calhan athlete who went on to play NCAA sports.
When Scott Notz sought help at a board meeting of Calhan School District RJ 1, he says, “No one knew the classes weren’t acceptable.”
They had the same reaction he had — if the classes were good enough to get into college, why weren’t they good enough for the NCAA?
School Board Vice President Scott Makita said, “For us, it wasn’t just an oversight. It was terrible. I grew up with Scott and his family and I expressed how bad I felt. It shouldn’t have happened.”
Minding the details
Steve Kirkham, athletic director at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says that his coaches must pass an exam on recruit rules and other regulations. He notes that college entrance requirements emphasize an index that takes into account grade point averages and SAT and ACT. But NCAA looks at core courses. “It’s a lot of pressure on the high school to do due dilligence,” he says.
UCCS hasn’t had any issues in years where their athletes’ high school courses were denied. “It’s usually just something like a school forgot to list a class and it’s not on file, so it is appealed.”
In larger school districts such problems are less common because they have more students who go on to play NCAA sports. And they often have employees who focus on ensuring compliance.
At Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, five percent of students become NCAA athletes.
“NCAA rules are very complicated, depending on the division,” said Russ McKinstry, Lewis- Palmer athletic director. “The rules are often changing. There’s a new set of standards being rolled out next year again, so the game will change again.”
McKinstry can remember only one instance when a class was not accepted.
“It was years ago. We had a communications class that the NCAA wouldn’t take. It was English, but it didn’t meet their guidelines.”
Dave Hogan, athletic director at Harrison High School, recalls only one credential problem. The athlete had not completed required paperwork and had to do it after he was in junior college.
“You have to work together as a unit to make sure they are on the right path. As freshmen, they don’t always think a lot about what they have to add to their repertoire.”
Hogan said the school recently added Chinese and an information literacy class that were approved.
“NCAA doesn’t take Junior ROTC classes. We have a lot of athletes that take it, all four years. We’ve made the plea to the NCAA. I wish it would be accepted.” He said that not only impacts Harrison athletes in this military town, but other schools too, such as Air Academy in Academy School District 20, and Mitchell in Colorado Springs School District 11.
Hogan doesn’t fault the stringency that NCAA demands.
“They are trying to raise the bar for athletes. So if you list something as an English class, then it should be an English class.” It’s a far cry from the days he was in school. “All it took was my transcript and that was it. But schools started to manipulate the systems and so all those rules had to be created.”
The NCAA has high academic standards to ensure that the students will be prepared for college.
“There are stresses and responsibilities placed on them as students and as athletes,” McCool of the NCAA says. “It’s tough enough without the athletics. So if they are not prepared, you are setting them up for failure.”
Back in the game
Just last week Corynne Notz got good news: The NCAA will allow her to play on the junior varsity team.
The freshman English composition class was approved after school officials provided more detail on the class. The Senior Seminar class was denied, but Notz was given a waiver.
“It had been a paperwork glitch,” said Calhan Superintendent Linda Miller. “We submitted additional paperwork and a more detailed syllabus. They found it had the rigor that it needed.”
She says the district has put in safeguards to ensure such problems don’t happen again. “Our goal is to get the right information to the NCAA and communicate with parents and students so they can make informed decisions and there aren’t any surprises.”
Corynne, meanwhile, is practicing the wing position about two hours daily with the Cougar Junior Varsity.
“I’m very excited. I can’t wait for our first game.”
She and her teammates square off Nov. 13 against Western Nebraska.
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