Hey NCAA, what's the hang-up?

Frustration levels high as several elite recruits face increased NCAA scrutiny

Originally Published: September 5, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The anger and frustration are seeping in from literally every corner of the country right now, directed inland toward a brick building in Indianapolis.

At the moment, the vitriol lives in Los Angeles, Lexington, Providence and Raleigh -- but that's just for 2012.

It's always somewhere about this time of the year, in those panicky days when classes have started or are about to start on a college campus.

And the ire always is directed at NCAA headquarters, as fans wait for the puff of smoke signaling that their top prospect has been given the NCAA all-clear to play ball.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad & Anderson
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastWill top-five UCLA recruits Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad suit up for the Bruins this season?

Five of ESPN's top 25 incoming freshmen are in some degree of NCAA purgatory. Nerlens Noel at Kentucky has been cleared to play, but Sports Illustrated reported that the NCAA has expanded its inquiry into him and members of his prep school staff; Shabazz Muhammad at UCLA is enrolled in classes but has not been cleared to play due to potential amateurism issues; his teammate Kyle Anderson is in the same boat; one of NC State's biggest recruits in years, Rodney Purvis, is enrolled in school but cannot play; and at Providence, Ricky Ledo has, according to the Providence Journal, enrolled, but there is speculation that he could be deemed a partial qualifier.

(Editor's Note: A few hours after the publication of this article, Ledo was deemed a partial qualifier by the NCAA. That means he can practice and remain on scholarship at PC, but will not play this season.)

In each corner, everyone has the same questions: Why and why now?

"It isn't arbitrary," said LuAnn Humphrey, the NCAA's director of enforcement.

In other words, if the NCAA is looking, there is a reason.

To those railing about the unfairness of that, may we offer a suggestion? Consider the alternative. If the NCAA looks later, your season could take a vacation, the record books marred with those dreaded asterisks. These holdups, as annoying as they may seem, are meant to be more preemptive than punitive.

From multiple high schools to questionable hangers-on, there are multiple red flags that would trigger the attention of the NCAA, and when its curiosity is piqued enough, it looks.

In the last few years, the NCAA has gotten more aggressive, seeking out questionable behavior rather than waiting for a tip. The NCAA is a regular presence at summer events in basketball, and in football, it has divided the country into five regions, immersing people in each to talk with high school coaches and people who know how the sausage is made.

It admittedly keys in on kids with high profiles as early as eighth and ninth grade, tracking and monitoring their behavior, looking for some of those red flags. For example, a kid who starts switching high schools might indicate more than just academic problems; it could mean that someone is now "advising" him and his family.

If that sounds like profiling, well, put on your common-sense cap. Who is more likely to attract a posse of people hoping to leech off successes, a top prospect or a Division III kid?

"The fact is, the NCAA is out there during the summer more and more, and they understand what's going on," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "They see it. They understand."

The frustration -- and a lot of it is understandable -- comes with the timing. At Providence, for example, classes started on Tuesday and Ledo enrolled, still unsure whether he was cleared.

At NC State, Purvis is in classes, but coach Mark Gottfried doesn't know whether Purvis will be eligible due to questions about his high school's curriculum. Purvis was part of Upper Room Academy's first graduation class, and the NCAA has yet to certify all of his necessary 16 core courses.

"It's really challenging for us but especially for him," Gottfried said. "There's a lot of encouraging, but the unknown makes it so hard. You just don't know."

Athletes have waited as late as November to get the OK to play -- and in the litmus-test case of Renardo Sidney, it took an entire season to determine whether he could ever compete at Mississippi State.

[+] EnlargeNCAA Headquarters
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThere's a lot of frustration these days aimed at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.

Part of the problem, at least on the academic side, is an almost comically understaffed High School Review team. Just four people handle core-course certification -- 400 to 500 requests come in daily -- and six others sift through questionable or confusing transcripts.

"We prioritize," Lisa Roesler, a director with the High School Review team, told me in July. "If it's student-specific or a student is waiting, that would go to the top of the pile."

But the pile is only as good as the information in it, which is where the other delay comes in. On the academic side, tracking down transcripts from multiple high schools or getting appropriate core-course information doesn't always happen overnight.

On the amateurism side, it's even more complicated.

For starters, when does the smoking gun go off? If a red flag isn't raised until late in an athlete's high school career -- Humphrey said that typically in basketball, if an issue is going to crop up, it usually crystallizes in the junior season -- then the investigation is already behind the eight ball.

Even if the NCAA sends people to investigate immediately, there is nothing to compel those people to cooperate. The NCAA does not have subpoena power, and athletes aren't required to cooperate until they are enrolled in school.

"We have actively reached out and said, 'Hey this might be an issue if you end up on campus and you'll have to deal with it, so cooperate now or you can cooperate then,' " Humphrey said. "And they'll wait."

At which point, the investigators often turn to the university, telling officials that if they knowingly play an athlete with eligibility issues, they'll be subject to severe sanctions.

"There are situations where schools dig in their heels," said Rachel Newman Baker, who shares oversight responsibility in the NCAA's investigative wing. "That's when you see on the back end with the delays, where they'll have to request reinstatement or file for a waiver on their behalf. That's part of the delay."

Certainly some of the recent headline cases have made the NCAA's job a little easier. People are paying more attention, a little more willing to cooperate because they know what the punishment might be otherwise.

Of course, for every yin there is a yang, and plenty of people still view the NCAA as ineffective, busy capturing the nickel-and-dime offenders and failing to grab the million-dollar prizes.

Which leads to the question: Why bother?

If the process is so complex and painstaking, producing so much anger and bad feeling, is it worth it?

"We have to keep trying," Humphrey said. "Yes, it's difficult. Yes, it's a little daunting. But the answer is not to stop or give up. We don't have a choice in that."

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball