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November 10, 2011

Senate Matters:

Balancing local priorities, national standard

The Senate athletics committee reviews and makes recommendations about policies and procedures concerning academic standards for athletic participation and codes governing the conduct of varsity sports. Recent topics on the committee’s agenda included a review of the University’s drug-testing policy for athletes; a review of its policy regarding an athlete’s return to practice and competition after an injury, with special focus on concussions; programs for the development of athletes’ life skills, community service and leadership, and academic eligibility and retention of student-athletes.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) uses academic eligibility and retention rates as benchmarks for determining scholarship limits.  If a team is below acceptable rates, its institution may lose scholarships in that sport. The University of Pittsburgh has never lost a scholarship, and its academic eligibility and retention rates have increased over the past four years. In 2010, 290 Pitt student-athletes achieved NCAA scholar-athlete status, with term grade point averages of 3.0 or above; of these, 21 had 4.0 GPAs.

As one of 1,048 active NCAA member institutions, Pitt votes on proposed changes to association rules through the Senate athletics committee, in conjunction with Pitt’s faculty athletic representative and the director of Athletics. Many of the rules concern academics. For example, men’s baseball nationally had among the lowest academic eligibility and retention rate for varsity sports. Over a two-year period, two NCAA proposals were approved both by Pitt’s Senate athletics committee and nationally — one reducing the season from 15 weeks to 13 and another reducing the number of games from 56 to 50.

The Senate athletics committee is concerned with the quality of the academic experience for student-athletes. One NCAA proposal would have allowed prospective junior college student-athletes to apply a non-traditional course (such as  one with an Internet-based format) taken from an institution other than the one in which they were enrolled toward requirements for transfer to a four-year institution. Citing a lack of supervision and institutional control, the Senate athletics committee opposed the proposal, which also was defeated nationally.

A year later, a second proposal permitted counting a non-traditional course toward a prospective student-athlete’s initial eligibility requirements under specific conditions. This regulation required the instructor and the student-athlete to have ongoing interaction throughout the course, availability of the coursework for review upon request and a defined time period for course completion.  The Senate athletics committee favored the proposal, and it was approved nationally.

The committee also reviewed the following proposals concerning academic standards for incoming freshmen and transfer students:

• Allow incoming freshman student-athletes to take up to two courses after high school graduation to meet NCAA initial eligibility requirements prior to acceptance at a university. The committee favored the proposal.

• Require a junior college transfer student-athlete to complete at least six credits of transferable English and three credits of transferable math as part of the required 48 total credits.  The committee favored the proposal.

• Limit to two the number of physical education credits that a junior college student-athlete can transfer toward men’s basketball eligibility requirements.  The committee voted to support the proposal.

• Allow a high school prospect to be eligible as an NCAA qualifier after his/her junior year if he/she completes 13 core courses at a minimum 3.0 GPA and has an SAT score of at least 1000. The committee unanimously opposed the proposal, citing concerns over the lack of a graduation confirmation in the certification process.

In all of these cases, the Pitt committee’s vote was mirrored at the national level. However, not all proposed rule changes pass or are rejected nationally in line with the Pitt committee’s preference. A recent example: NCAA rules allow incoming freshmen to receive athletic scholarships in the summer term if they take at least six credits. A proposed change would have lowered that requirement to three credits. The Senate athletics committee’s research revealed that a reduction in course load could benefit Pitt student-athletes for several reasons:

• Due to high school graduation dates, Pitt’s summer 6-week-1 schedule of classes may not be available to all incoming freshmen.

• Some science and engineering courses are four credits. The existing rule might thus require incoming Pitt student-athletes to assume a heavier course load.

•  The last week of summer classes and final exams could conflict with the start of practice for fall athletic teams.

While the Pitt committee voted in favor of the reduced course load, the proposal did not pass at the NCAA level. Subsequently, Pitt added some one- and two-credit courses to the summer 6-week-2 schedule to accommodate the six-credit requirement for incoming freshmen. The challenge for the Senate athletics committee in cases such as these is to determine how to protect the interests of student-athletes in a manner that is consistent with the University’s values and priorities.

Lou Fabian is chair of the University Senate athletics committee.

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