Minnesota led successful NCAA challenge / Joe Nathan’s Columns

Joe Nathan

Whenever I watch NCAA basketball March Madness tournament games, I think about a cross section of Minnesotans who helped lead a successful four-year challenge of the NCAA, 1996-2000. Students, families and educators all over the state were deeply frustrated by the NCAA’s demands. Minnesotans across political, ideological and philosophical lines led a national challenge of rules that made no sense.

The NCAA tried to tell every high school in the country – district, charter, private or parochial – which high school courses were acceptable for college preparation. Regardless of students’ grades or college entrance test scores, if students did not take enough courses acceptable to the NCAA, they couldn’t accept an athletic scholarship or play on a university team as freshmen. This frustrated many strong students and innovative teachers.

Among other things, the NCAA rejected many interdisciplinary courses, any course focusing on current issues and courses with more than 25 percent of class time devoted to community service. The NCAA turned away National Merit Scholars, class valedictorians, even youngsters who already excelled in college courses.

Gov. Arne Carlson wrote to other state governors in October 1996 that students across the country, including 160 from Minnesota, “many at the top of their class, have been penalized by onerous requirements. … I have great concerns about whether it is even appropriate for the NCAA to inject itself into the purview of academic course approval.” In a letter published in The New York Times in November 1996, Carlson wrote, “Instead of micro-managing, I suggest the NCAA focus on insuring (sic) that all collegiate courses meet high academic standards.”

While they didn’t often agree, the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone joined Carlson. Wellstone wrote to the NCAA in October 1996, “It is important to demonstrate to young people that when unintended negative consequences occur, we as adults can change systems to ensure fairness.”

This was a great example of a “big tent” at work, as well as these instances:

–High school counselors led by Walter Roberts, a professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, as well as Marsha Gronseth, who spoke for the Minnesota State Board of Education, repeatedly questioned NCAA policies. They convinced their respective national organizations, the National Association of State Boards of Education and American School Counselors Association, to join the challenge.

–More than 50 educators, including Mary Beth Blegen, a Minnesota and National Teacher of the Year, signed a letter questioning NCAA procedures. This appeared in USA Today, which, like the New York Times, published an editorial urging the NCAA to change.

The NCAA also made classic mistakes, such as sending a fax with grammatical and spelling errors. The NCAA’s brief note faxed to Elk River Superintendent David Flannery had several mistakes, e.g., “Thank you for you fax. … The decision remains unchange for student named above.” Their memo brought lots of support.

Ultimately, a coalition of families, students and educators, including the Center for School Change, succeeded. The NCAA stopped relying on a quick review of course titles by University of Iowa students who were hired by the American College Testing Service (under a NCAA subcontract) to determine which courses were acceptable. The NCAA agreed to accept educators’ judgments about which courses are designed to prepare students for college.

The NCAA is extremely powerful, with huge television contracts coming in part from March Madness. Nevertheless, a national coalition led by Minnesotans convinced them to create a more professional process of course review.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.