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Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Updated: March 27, 9:28 PM ET
Impact of academic standard changes

By Mitch Sherman
ESPN RecruitingNation

The NCAA is considering changes to pending legislation that promises to impact recruiting in football and other sports like no other set of rules implemented over the past generation.

The much-publicized battle over recruiting deregulation, text messages and staff assignments, right?

Wrong.

Another issue of greater scope looms quietly, with the potential to shake the recruiting world in a way that an extra round of electronic communication can't touch.

It involves initial-eligibility standards. Academic requirements are on the rise for prospective Division I athletes, starting with the Class of 2016 that's now just weeks away from the end of its freshman year of high school.

If you haven't heard about it, you're not alone. Neither have some of the parents, coaches and counselors of the students who will be affected.

Even among the growing legions of people who know it's coming, many have yet to do anything, which is arguably the most irresponsible action of all.

Colleges are attempting to spread the word among young athletes at offseason events. The NCAA is trying, too. Posters outlining the changes hang in guidance departments and coaching offices nationwide.

Among college administrators and coaches, though, a general feeling of helplessness exists. Colleges can try to educate prospects about eligibility changes, but they can't make a significant difference until those kids reach campus. If they reach campus.

For now, chew on this ominous figure: Of all the freshman football players to enroll at Division I schools in 2011, approximately 40 percent would have failed to meet the proposed 2016 requirements, according to a survey conducted by the NCAA.

"Is the [high school] freshman class getting it? No. Not even close," said former sportscaster and small-school punter Dan Eassa, something of an activist in educating families and administrators on recruiting issues.

The Tampa, Fla.-based Eassa, 45, compared the impending changes to the shock wave that accompanied Proposition 48 three decades ago. When that legislation was first enacted in 1986, scores of athletes were turned away by schools and conferences that refused to accept partial and nonqualifiers.

"We all knew it was coming," Eassa said. "But it wasn't until the wave hit the shore that we tried to do something about it. That is, unfortunately, what I feel is going to happen here, because we live in a reactive society."

The new standards demand a sense of awareness as early as ninth grade. If you're just starting to look at your core-course GPA (entirely different from the cumulative figure) as a sophomore, you're way behind.

At high schools around the country, efforts are well under way to educate freshmen that they must meet a new standard. Early results vary.

"The biggest thing is getting a freshman to understand that this grade you make in a biology class is going to stay with you," said Kirk Barton, activities director at Norcross (Ga.) High School, a football powerhouse in suburban Atlanta. "It's going to make a difference in your ability to get into a college. It could be something that helps shape the rest of your life.

"Sometimes, getting a 14-year-old to understand that is difficult."

Still, Barton said he thinks the kids will adjust.

"They have to," he said. "Either adjust or the junior colleges will have a whole lot more applicants over the next few years."

No doubt, education is the key.

Along with the changes to initial-eligibility standards, the NCAA also plans to unveil the academic redshirt, a status that would allow qualifiers under the current standards who do not meet the new requirements to enroll in college on financial aid.

Academic redshirts would be ineligible to compete as freshmen but could retain that season of eligibility by meeting requirements in their first year on campus.

Already, high school coaches fear the recruiting ramifications posed to potential academic redshirts. College coaches, in making evaluations, figure to pass on the prospect who looks like an eligibility risk in favor of another slightly less promising on-field player with no skeletons in his academic closet.

The kids I've met say they're not concerned. Typical. And some have no reason to worry. The heightened standards won't deter overachieving students.

We can't go by rankings and recruiting stars. We have to find guys who we can project and develop. There's an art to that.

-- Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford

But here's the thing about a team full of teenagers: They mature at different rates -- athletically and academically. If you've walked around an August practice field, you get it. Some freshmen act like seniors; others appear on the verge of elementary school graduation.

To throw blanket standards over such a group and require attentiveness -- if not compliance -- from freshman year forward is asking a lot.

Eassa just wants to make sure people understand. His nonprofit organization, Recruiting Education Foundation Inc., founded two years ago, has partnered with academic and athletic associations in 45 states to further education about recruiting issues on the whole.

But why?

"When I grew up, nobody thought they deserved to get recruited," said Eassa, who played at Pace University in New York. "If you were good enough, it just sort of happened. Now, so many people feel they're entitled. I started hearing stories of families being taken advantage of financially, and it just pissed me off."

Outside of the NCAA and the work done by schools, Eassa stands alone in this quest. In the 12 months that I've reported on the issue and inquired at the high school and college levels about awareness, no name resonates like his.

His message -- delivered in live presentations and through online webinars -- hits home with students, parents, counselors and coaches.

"It's the best piece we've ever had on the recruiting process," said D.W. Rutledge, executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association. "Kids here are getting the message. I don't think we're there yet, but we're further along than we've ever been.

"At the same time, there are still a lot of coaches who don't have their arms around the whole process. It's something you've got to study."

Rutledge, a former longtime football coach at Converse (Texas) Judson, said he monitored Eassa for close to two years before agreeing to the partnership. The THSAA wanted nothing to do with a service out to get cash from families.

Eassa simply serves up a tray of reality.

"The word is spreading in our state," said Momi Tu'ua, president of the Utah School Counselors Association, which partners with Eassa. "It seems like statewide, we're aware. And we're trying to start in ninth grade."

As Eassa said, "I have yet to meet a guidance counselor who majored in NCAA or NAIA eligibility," so the responsibility to educate rests with multiple parties.

Eassa has no formal partnership with the NCAA, though on this matter, they want the same thing.

As for those additional considerations, the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance recently reviewed a concern by membership that the anticipated changes to the test score-GPA sliding scale were too dramatic.

They may be implemented on a slower timeline. The committee will make a recommendation to the Division I Board of Directors in May.

Eassa said he hopes for clarity, for consistency. Amid a climate of regular upheaval and deregulation in recruiting, a move toward stability might work wonders for all.