In other circumstances, his brain might have helped split the atom. Instead, as Mallonee sits in his office one morning in November, his brain is absorbing the 150 new pieces of legislation that are up for passage at the convention in January. When Mallonee came to the Association as a 27-year-old law school graduate on April Fools' Day 1986, he was a ravenous consumer of television sports. "The first four or five years here, I couldn't watch games or the commercials around games without saying, 'There's a violation, there's a violation,' " he says, as if confessing some sickness in a self-help group. "Or I'd read articles in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and inevitably find violations.
"I'm much better now," he says, a recovering Rain Man of the rule book. "I realize that my responsibility is not to police the world." Oh, that the entire NCAA had experienced such an epiphany. Mallonee has 12 years of rule books aligned on his office shelf. Each book's spine is wider than the last, ever-widening ripples on a pond. In 1986 Mallonee's department fielded 400 questions a week on the rules. Today it receives 2,000, almost half from parents of athletes not yet in college.
That's because the NCAA requires its student-athletes in Divisions I and II to have completed at least 13 "core" high school courses in certain academic disciplines to be eligible to compete as college freshmen. The standards were set by the NCAA Academic Requirements Committee and passed by the membership. A group called the Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse (operated by the Iowa City company that administers the ACT college-entrance exam) reviews the curricula of the 24,000 U.S. high schools and certifies their courses as meeting or failing to meet these core requirements. Students hoping to play sports in college are expected to keep score of their cores, and more than 110,000 such high schoolers have registered with the Clearinghouse. It sounds like the Publisher's Clearinghouse, except that these guys send out letters reading, "You may already be a loser."
Any number of things can go—and have gone—wrong. Some high schools aren't told which of their courses meet NCAA requirements until the end of the school year. Some students are never told by their high schools that their course loads are insufficient. Other students have taken more rigorous college-prep courses that inexplicably have not been certified by the overloaded Clearinghouse.
So state champion hockey player Winny Brodt, with a 3.5 grade point average, and state champion gymnast Debbie Thompson, with a 3.4 GPA, had their college scholarships put on hold last summer when the Clearinghouse disapproved of Critical Reading, their honors English course at Roseville (Minn.) High. Some 900 students nationwide appealed to the NCAA after courses they took were rejected by the Clearinghouse. One hundred sixty of them were from Minnesota, whose governor, Arne Carlson, has publicly complained that a state-approved curriculum should not be second-guessed by the National Collegiate 'Arrassment Association.
It did not help the NCAA's image that a school superintendent gave The New York Times a copy of a fax sent by the Clearinghouse to one of those 900 students. "Thank you for you [sic] fax regarding 'Essential Communications,' " it read. "Do [sic] to the vocational aspect of the course, we are unable to approve this course as a core course. Therefore, the decision remains unchange [sic] for student named above."
An NCAA subcommittee granted waivers to nearly half of the students who appealed, and some of the rejections were appealed further to the full 44-member NCAA Council. "We've paid a financial price on this," Dempsey said. "We've paid a public-image price. Could we accomplish it in a different way?" He didn't answer, but the implication was, I sure as hell hope so.
"I fully feel for these young people," said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA's director of compliance services, who was on first-name terms with the aforementioned Winny and Debbie and who blushed when their names were brought up. "But keep in mind, most kids take 24 to 26 courses in high school. We want 13 of those to be in certain academic areas. And we take pride in the fact that we have better-prepared kids coming into college."
Within a week of that conversation, Brodt and Thompson were granted their waivers, but only after they had become a Page One cause célèbre in Minnesota; the governor and a U.S. senator had rained unholy rhetoric down on Dempsey's desk; and Brodt had postponed by a year her enrollment at defending women's hockey champion New Hampshire.
The NCAA defends its academic standards with missionary zeal, in part to show that college sports are still distinct from pro sports, no matter how much the line between the two has been blurred. "The further we get away from a traditional amateurism rule, the more important this issue becomes," says Lennon. "[Academic standards are] the last anchor in this whole enterprise to legitimize why sports is part of college. Why do we play football on this college campus on Saturday afternoons? Because the players are students. The public needs some assurance that the players will be in class on Monday. The minute you lose that, you have to start questioning the whole enterprise."