The Villanova Wildcats had high expectations for freshman Omari Spellman this season. Thanks to some dubious high school credits — which included attending three schools in four years — the prized prospect was ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA late last week.
To be fair, the governing body of college sports did nothing wrong here. This isn’t a case where the inept gatekeepers of the student-athlete ideal did something reprehensible. Rather, it can be argued that the NCAA does its best to levy measured punishments when incoming players are ruled ineligible due to high school transcripts.
Basically, the player can’t be granted the right to play, even if it is another person’s mistake, so the NCAA does all it can really do. It makes that player ineligible, but takes zero years of eligibility away from the player, and (usually) allows the player to still practice with the team while he gets his grades in order.
The issue here isn’t with the player, either.
Many of the nation’s best prospects begin to emerge on the recruiting scene as early as their freshman years in high school. We are talking 15- and 16-year-old kids who are barely old enough to form fully functioning emotions, let alone understand the concept of the NCAA’s eligibility guidelines.
Those tasked with helping these kids — parents, handlers, who have you (it is a case by case basis) — have failed them. Unfortunately, the kids have to pay for the sins of other people’s mistakes.
The mistakes, it needs to be noted, can be accidents.
Not every person helping a kid reach high-level Division I basketball is out to get something “extra” from the player. A parent can simply be uneducated on the ways of system. That can lead to a guardian relying on non-altruistic figures for advice, which in turn can result in players being given bad instructions.
It appears rather simple for a player to get cleared by the NCAA. Go to a normal high school — or a few of them — obtain a certain-level GPA, and it should be smooth sailing. The problem: It is rarely that easy.
For all the fly-by-night “high schools” to people who weaseled their ways into a prospect’s inner-circle, the waters a potential freshman must navigate just to gain NCAA eligibility are proving to be far more treacherous than they need to be.
Again, this shouldn’t be pinned on the player — a kid, by very literal definition. He is relying on adults to steer him in the proper direction. When he is being steered to a high school, the player — rightfully — assumes that the school being recommended is above-board. Why else would that school be recommended in the first place?
There are no real fixes to this issue. The NCAA already does its best to limit how harsh a punishment the player receives for others’ actions. The governing body also has a jurisdictional reach that limits itself from jumping into high school affairs. Its hands are mostly clean and absolved from scrutiny.
It might be up to each individual state to #sticktosports. It might be necessary for state governments to intervene whenever a “high school” is conjured by those looking to make a fast dollar, and to shut down those “institutions” before they ruin the life of a single kid who has no idea it might hurt him down the line.
There are other, more immediate solutions to be pursued.
Player handlers can do a better job of becoming more educated on NCAA eligibility. The governing body can very literally put together a list of high schools players CAN’T attend if they want to play big boy college basketball. Other people can start doing the right thing instead of trying to extract personal profit from someone more talented (the player) than themselves.
Regardless, the entire point of this little column is to make a point that seems obvious, but is often lost during the discussion of freshmen being ruled academically ineligible: Rarely is it the actual player’s fault he can’t play basketball the first year he hits campus. Usually, it is because of everyone else.
I don’t know what exactly needs to happen or what can be done, but hopefully someone smarter than I can begin to build a plan, which can then be implemented, to prevent any more teenagers being punished for the mistakes — intentional or not — made by adults.