By Matt Velazquez
There was a time not long ago when Jahii Carson didn’t know about the display case on the second floor of Arizona State’s Carson Student-Athlete Center, let alone imagine his picture in it.
The four smiling faces added in January belonged to a diverse group of student-athletes. They all compete at the highest level of intercollegiate athletics, but share something else in common. Their achievements in the classroom earned them the distinction as “Student-Athletes of the Fall Semester” given out by the Sun Devil Athletics Office of Student-Athlete Development.
Carson’s face is similar to the others, but the path he followed to that case looks so much different. A second-year student and communications major, Carson’s exploits are now known across the country as he's led the Sun Devils men's basketball team to a 21-12 regular-season record and a berth in the NIT. He is a finalist for National Freshman of the Year, the country’s second-highest scoring rookie, and Arizona State’s freshman record-holder for assists.
But when Carson matriculated to campus in the fall of 2011 he had no chance of finding his way into that glass case. In fact, he never would have seen that case because he had no reason to go to the Office of Student-Athlete Development.
Carson already knew how to score big on the basketball court while getting recruited to play for head coach Herb Sendek and the Sun Devils. But he first needed to learn how to hit the winning shots in the classroom so he could have that chance.
He was what the NCAA calls an academic non-qualifier.
Carson grew up in Mesa, about 20 minutes east of Arizona State’s main campus in Tempe. His basketball career is well known in those parts, as most legends are. He was rumored to have dunked at the age of 13. He set scoring and assists records as a junior and senior at Mesa High School. He scored 58 points in a state semifinal game in 2011.
When the Parade All-American committed to play at Arizona State on Nov. 13, 2010, it was the team’s biggest signing since landing current Houston Rockets star James Harden. More importantly, Carson was the team’s most-decorated in-state recruit in decades.
As basketball goes, Carson’s hard work paid off when he submitted his National Letter of Intent. But in the classroom, he still faced a tall task: making up for some lackluster academic years in order to qualify to play for the Sun Devils the following fall.
Carson doesn’t lack intelligence, though. In his early years, Jahii was homeschooled by his mother, Vanae, a history professor at Central Arizona College, and performed well at each grade level. He especially enjoyed and flourished in history and English, the subjects his mother knew best and pushed hard.
At middle school age, Carson transitioned into public school for the first time. He said it was at that point that his parents wanted him to learn how to be responsible for his own actions and educational success. His mother was available for help, but he needed to take the initiative to seek it.
New to the school social scene, Carson — who describes himself as an outgoing person by nature — didn’t adjust well to his new academic scene. Jahii’s star was just beginning to rise on the basketball court. He said he was “all about basketball, basketball, basketball” in those days. But in the classroom he wasn’t performing at the level he was capable.
His struggles were magnified in high school, where Carson was slow to adapt to the academic climate in which he found himself. He felt the curriculum lacked the individual attention to which he became accustomed during homeschool and middle school. Since he wasn’t focused on his academics at that time, Jahii said he didn’t pursue extra help from his parents or teachers and instead let his grades plummet in his first two years of high school.
Carson transferred from Mountain Pointe High School to Mesa High after his sophomore year and began to take his academics more seriously. He humbled himself by asking for academic assistance from his mother, who spent years teaching her son the tough lesson of responsibility by letting him experience the consequences of his own decisions. In addition, he began seeking extra help from his teachers.
As recruiting letters poured in from Division I schools and he eventually signed with Arizona State, Carson battled in the classroom to dig out of his academic hole. He wanted to ensure his ability to play during his first year at college.
When the dust settled and his grades and standardized test scores came in, Carson landed just short of the NCAA’s standards. He was labeled as an academic non-qualifier.
An academic non-qualifier is a student-athlete who does not meet the NCAA’s minimum threshold for academic readiness. There are many variables that go into deciding if a student is adequately prepared for the rigors of college, including grade point average, standardized test scores, and completion of foundational core classes.
A prospective athlete who is named a non-qualifier is still able to enroll at the school of their choice, but is not allowed to receive athletically related aid or engage in team activities such as practices, study halls and games.
Though he was initially disappointed in his new label, Carson knew that there was recourse. He enrolled part-time at Arizona State in fall 2011 while the university appealed to the NCAA on his behalf. He then enrolled full-time in spring 2012.
“It definitely hurt me. I took everything positively, though,” Carson said. “I knew I wouldn’t be a non-qualifier forever.”
While Carson began the fall 2011 semester as a student at Arizona State, the NCAA was examining his initial eligibility waiver. When prospective student-athletes are listed as non-qualifiers, their institutions can choose to file that waiver to the NCAA on behalf of the student. When that waiver is received – upwards of 550 are filed each year – it is analyzed by one or more of the approximately 10 NCAA staff members who work in the NCAA’s Academic and Membership Affairs division.
Juliette Kenny, an Associate Director of AMA, is one such staff member who processes the waivers. Since waiver requests vary greatly, Kenny and her colleagues have the difficult task of working within the NCAA’s guidelines while accounting for the unique elements of each case. In order to give each case a thorough examination, the NCAA staff sometimes requests additional information from the schools.
“We may solicit student-athlete statements as a part of the waiver process,” Kenny said. “We may also look into the academic support that will be available to that student-athlete just to make sure that they will be provided appropriate academic support through their first year of initial enrollment.”
Ultimately, the NCAA staff can come to one of four distinct decisions regarding initial eligibility waivers. Two of the options are simple to understand: The waiver can be fully approved, granting the student-athlete the ability to receive aid, practice, and play immediately. Or it can be denied. Between those two poles is a middle ground.
One result allows the student-athlete to receive athletically related financial aid, though they cannot practice or play with the team. Finally, there is the decision that was made regarding Carson, which involves the receipt of aid and inclusion on the team in every function except competition during the first year.
“Oftentimes a decision may be rendered that involves the receipt of athletically related aid and practice, but no competition during that first year,” Kenny said. “That tends to capture prospective student-athletes who have demonstrated some academic success throughout secondary school. There may be some mitigating factors that impacted their ability to meet the initial eligibility requirements, but competition may not be appropriate.”
This decision is commonly misunderstood as “academic redshirting,” because the student-athlete sits out the season for academic reasons but maintains their four years of eligibility. Though it previously had the designation of partial qualifier in the 1990s, the NCAA doesn’t currently have such a policy. Players are either qualifiers or non-qualifiers, unless – as in the case with Carson -- they receive a waiver.
Since the NCAA is a membership organization, the authority for staff workers like Dickman and Kenny to make decisions on initial eligibility waivers comes from the NCAA membership itself. This means that the decisions of NCAA staff are not final and can be appealed to a committee.
The process can take some time due to the high number of waivers and the individual attention that the NCAA takes analyzing each one. But in the end the goal is find the best outcome for each student.
However, on Aug. 1, 2016, that will change when the NCAA enacts an update to its minimum eligibility standards. Part of that change will include an academic redshirt designation, according to NCAA Managing Director of AMA Diane Dickman. Students will be eligible to receive athletic-related aid and practice during their first semester, but not compete.
In other words, more students will benefit in the same way Carson did at ASU without the need for a waiver.
“We really want students to succeed,” Dickman said. “At the end of the day this is about getting as many students to the finish line of a four-year college degree as we possibly can. That’s the end goal, so obviously initial eligibility is certainly the front-end of this process.”
Carson embarked upon academic life at Arizona State while waiting for the decision in his case. Though he wasn’t involved in basketball for the first time in years, he took the opportunity to acclimate to college life at a slower pace and pay more attention to his academics. He found that college, while more academically challenging, suited his learning style better than high school. In college, he said, “you have more time to do your work; more freedom to do what you need to do.”
But he was antsy to hear back from the NCAA regarding his eligibility. Dealing with the public scrutiny and waiting to hear about his fate was stressful for Carson, according to Patrice Feulner, an assistant athletic director of student-athlete development at ASU. Partway through his first semester, Carson got word that the NCAA had cleared him to receive athletically related aid and to practice, but he wouldn’t be allowed to compete during his first year.
Gaining access to his teammates, coach Herb Sendek, the practice court and the weight room were all positive developments for Carson as a basketball player. But one of the biggest results of the NCAA waiver decision was his ability to access the tutors in Arizona State’s athletic department, located on the second floor of the Carson Student-Athlete Center.
Carson enrolled full-time following the waiver decision and immediately began attending team study halls and working with Feulner.
“Once he was able to get up here with me every day, he spent hours with me each day getting caught up and getting organized and prioritizing his work and things like that,” Feulner said. “Once he was up here with me he was able to get back on track really easily. He’s a really good student.”
With Carson now succeeding in the classroom while simultaneously helping the Sun Devils contend for an NCAA Tournament berth, the lonely, stressful days as a student-athlete without a team seem like an eternity ago. But he remembers and appreciates that experience. While it was difficult at times, Carson now recognizes the positive impact that it had on his life.
“When I came this year I was ready,” Carson said. “That (experience) helped me mature and blossom.”
Feulner witnessed Carson blossoming by working closely with him – as she does with many other student-athletes. Through her work with Carson, she has seen that he is no longer flustered by the mechanics of academia. Instead, he relishes the opportunity to compete in the classroom.
“He absolutely has figured it out and is very self-sufficient and does a great job,” Feulner said. “He competes in everything he does. He’s constantly talking about a 3.0 and competing in the classroom. That’s something that I think is so important, that he competes with passion and with character in all that he does and that’s something that I really respect in him.”
While he’s happy to have Carson and his 17.8 points per game on the court, head coach Herb Sendek recognizes that this process has been about more than basketball. He’s seen Carson mature into a “terrific young gentleman,” take his academics more seriously, and become “a bright shining light for our basketball program.” All of that thanks in part to the waiver granted by the NCAA.
“He’s made the best of the opportunity,” Sendek said. “He’s doing very well in the classroom right now and he’s also doing great on the court. … At this point it’s really a wonderful success story and we’re all very, very happy. … This is why we coach. This is why we work at the NCAA – for stories like this.”