- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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A tree died somewhere between Lawrence, Kan., and Indianapolis last year. No one got the age or genus of the former forest dweller, but judging by its massive output, it probably was in the neighborhood of a redwood.
It gave its life to a worthy but ultimately unwinnable cause, sacrificing its proud bark in the form of voluminous amounts of documents to help two would-be Kansas players prove they should be allowed to compete as freshmen.
And there, in the tree's graveyard, lies perhaps the greatest disconnect between the NCAA, its Eligibility Center and the people it's trying to govern: When it comes to determining a high school student's initial academic eligibility, quantity doesn't matter. Quality does.
"Sometimes the coaches don't know the nuances of our academic legislation," said Lisa Roesler, a director with the High School Review, the arm of the NCAA's Eligibility Center that determines whether a high school student's course work qualifies for a Division I scholarship. "So they really think, 'How could they say no when they have all this information?' Well, yeah they have the information but the work still hasn't passed muster against the legislation."
The vast majority of the high school athletes who submit their names for NCAA certification will be cleared. Of the handful who come up in front of the High School Review for in-depth looks, the public will know only a small percentage of them.
Public or not, the process of figuring it all out is painstakingly tedious. It includes, for people like Roesler, hours and hours of document review and, for people like Kansas coach Bill Self, hours and hours of confusion.
Self has spent the better part of the previous two summers working with the High School Review group. First he did the paper exchange for Josh Selby and then last year, for Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor. Selby ultimately received his academic clearance, though is college career was delayed for amateurism issues; McLemore and Traylor will begin their Kansas clocks this fall.
His is the perfect case study in where and how the dialogue breaks down between the two groups. Both are well-intentioned and Self is quick to point out that he thinks the Eligibility Center is right to demand academic preparedness and is doing its best in an impossibly complicated environment.
That said, the process still can make him -- as well as most every coach -- feel dazed and confused.
"I get it, I really do. There has to be a standard,'' he said. "But the problem is, it's not black and white. [An ACT score of] 17 and a 2.5 [GPA] doesn't mean you're eligible. It's not the standard really.''
He's both right and wrong, says the High School Review. The test scores and the GPA aren't enough; they have to come in the form of certain core courses and, more important, in the form of core courses that meet the NCAA's standards.
It is not enough that it is from the fields of study the NCAA has mandated -- for example, English, math and the sciences -- the course itself has to be approved, which is usually where the complications arise.
Even high school staffs lose the translation, misunderstanding that what they count toward a diploma isn't necessarily the same as what the NCAA counts toward eligibility.
"One of the major philosophical differences between our mission and secondary education is that the high school mission is to graduate students from high school," High School Review associate director Jeremy McCool said. "You meet the graduation requirements and go into the workforce, to a two-year school, whatever you choose. We are standing at the gate of a four-year college education.
"So we'll get calls from people that say, 'Hey, this course meets our graduation requirements, so why don't you accept it?' Then we have to explain it may meet your requirements, but not our legislation."
Self said that is exactly the crosshairs that hangs up most athletes he has dealt with.
Kids, he said, are usually the last to know. Someone tells them to take a course and that it will count. They sign up, pass the class and find out later -- too late -- it doesn't meet the NCAA's core requirements.
"That's not the kid's fault," Self said. "The majority of the problems I've seen are based on bad advisement. That's where the fine line is."
And that's where the paper trail begins.
Most kids aren't trying to disprove that they cheated by taking a phony class or having a grade change. Though transcripts are flagged for precipitous grade jumps and there is, in fact, cases of fraud, good, rule-abiding kids also earn red flags, too.
"I had a women's rower whose file was just a hot mess," Roesler said. "She went to four different school, five different virtual schools and we're trying to unravel it. It's not that they're bad students or bad kids. They could be very good students but their files are just complex."
And so the High School Review asks for paperwork and documentation, which is where the trees come in.
Self has helped kids procure transcripts from schools that no longer exist and grade books that are years old.
Some schools keep grade books; others don't.
Sometimes, though, all the grade books in the world won't do it.
"I'm going to give you a great example that landed on my desk," Roesler said. "It was about two bankers' boxes full. The assumption in this particular case was, 'If we bury them with enough stuff it will be OK.' Or, 'How could it not be OK when we sent you all this stuff?' Well in this case, it was an English 4 class and its curriculum included things like spelling, punctuation, capitalization and putting things in alphabetical order."
Caught in the middle of this, of course, is a teenager who wants to get his college career going and isn't sure if he can. It's a crunch of a timetable made all the more pressing now that many athletes enroll in summer session prior to their freshmen years.
The High School Review staff is more than aware of that conundrum and tries to prioritize its cases accordingly. Still, that frequently leaves college coaches caught between a rock and a hard place. NCAA rules stipulate that an athlete who still needs to complete high school coursework cannot do that work in college.
"Here's where we get screwed up -- we think a kid is qualified, our academic people think he's qualified and our compliance people think he's qualified, so we want to bring him in for summer session," Self said. "But he's been to multiple schools, so we know that will trigger a review.
"So are we better off bringing him, letting him get oriented academically to college or better off with the safety net and waiting? And if we go that route, who have we benefited? You get him eligible but he hasn't been on campus, getting ready. It's a catch-22 that puts the kids in limbo."
And so, left with little recourse, Self pushes more paper.
And another tree is sacrificed.
The dance between the NCAA's Eligibility Center and a school can often be more contentious than collaborative when trying to clear a student with red flags. As conversations with the High School Review and Kansas coach Bill Self show, there are valid points to be made on both sides of the divide.