In his freshman season last fall, Indian Land High School’s Rakym Felder rushed for 608 yards and six touchdowns… in just three games at running back.
“Great coaching, huh?” Indian Land coach Michael Mayer joked, referencing the first eight games of the season when Felder played at linebacker.
On the basketball court this past winter, Felder, a smooth-shooting lefty who turned 15 in January, was even better. He averaged more than 21 points per game en route to All-State honors from the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association.
“He’s one of those gifted athletes,” said Mayer. “If he wanted to go play tennis, he could. He’s just a remarkably gifted athlete.”
A college sports career is most likely in Felder’s future. But in order to play in the NCAA, he and other members of the class of 2016 will have to meet higher eligibility standards that take effect in August that year.
At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Felder has the stout, muscular frame of a high school junior or senior. Now, because of the new NCAA requirements, he has to think about school like one too.
“If you lose focus of what you’ve gotta do to get there,” he said, “you ain’t gonna get there.”
The basics of the new requirements
Starting in 2016, incoming student athletes must have a minimum high school grade point average of 2.3, a slight increase from the standard 2.0 that’s been in place since 1986. But in what might be the biggest change, student-athletes also have to complete 10 core course credits by the end of their junior year, a stipulation NCAA president Mark Emmert called an effort to remove “the summer miracle.”
Seven of the completed core classes must be in English, math and science; other commonly accepted cores include philosophy and foreign language.
“Where in years past a lot of students have waited until the last minute, whether it be the last semester or the last two semesters (of their senior years), to cram everything in, with the new rules, they cannot do that,” said Brian Rogers, a guidance counselor and assistant athletic director at South Pointe High School.
Winthrop University compliance director Scott McDonald noted that the average high school student typically completes between 12 and 16 core credit classes by their junior year. He recommended student-athletes take as many of the core classes as possible in their first three years of high school, when it's easiest to replace them, instead of cramming core credits into the last two semesters.
“The more core classes that you have, the more room you have to increase your GPA,” McDonald explained. “You give yourself a little more wiggle room with those one or two classes where you don’t do as well as you hoped.”
The new NCAA eligibility rules also state that a student-athlete who achieves a grade point average between the old 2.0 and new 2.3 requirements is eligible to receive a scholarship and practice in college, but not compete. In essence, they would have to take an academic redshirt year.
Under the previous rules, student-athletes who didn’t make a 2.0 were simply ineligible to receive scholarship money and would have to find another route to college, often through the junior college ranks.
McDonald, who examines the transcripts of high school athletes being considered by Winthrop coaches, feels the academic redshirt policy is more inclusive.
“What was so harsh currently is if you’re a non-qualifier, you can’t get financial aid in your first year,” he said. “A lot of times that stifles somebody’s ability to go to college. I really like the academic redshirt part because you can give a kid financial aid still so they have that year to get prepared to life as a student-athlete in college.”
Local administrators, teachers and coaches have had to hit the books so they can share and explain the new rules with students and parents. The NCAA has been active since last spring in spreading the word too, launching a web site, 2point3.org. Some colleges have hosted high school coaches and administrators in statewide seminars to discuss the new requirements.
But much of the dissemination of the new information has fallen to local schools, because the South Carolina High School League has played no part. When asked if he was aware of the NCAA’s new stipulations, league director Jerome Singleton said he was “Not familiar with them at all.”
Singleton pointed out that the league’s eligibility rules do not have to coincide with the NCAA’s requirements, hence his unfamiliarity with the new guidelines. He said the state high school league wasn’t directly responsible for disseminating the information among its members. But, he added, “If somebody would send us a document, we don’t have a problem with getting that information out.”
Accordingly, local high school coaches and administrators have plunged into the new material on their own. Rogers and South Pointe athletics director Mike Drummond attended a seminar in Columbia hosted by the NCAA Eligibility Center and several in-state colleges.
Rogers speaks at each season’s sports banquet to parents and athletes, as well as at parent meetings at the beginning of seasons. At Rock Hill High School, assistant athletic directors Cindy Elder and Eric Rollings took online classes and studied the NCAA’s thick manuscript on eligibility in an effort to school athletes and parents about the tougher guidelines.
“It’s real important that we get on them early,” Rollings said. “We’re just trying to do what we can to educate these parents so that they have a clue and when they’re sophomores and juniors they’re not going, ‘what in the world?’”
Raising eligibility requirements across the board?
If the NCAA is raising requirements in the classroom, should high schools too?
Some already have. Mayer has been the Warriors’ athletics director for 12 years, and the school has had tougher requirements than the state each of the last seven years.
According to the high school league’s guidelines, student-athletes who take eight classes in a school year have to earn five credits to be eligible, including two in the semester preceding their sport. Indian Land students take eight classes per year, meaning they could fail three under the league’s rules and still be eligible.
Instead, Indian Land only allows one F with the understanding that sometimes teenagers mess up. More than one F and the athlete must go to summer school to replace one of the failed grades in order to be eligible in the fall. Two fall semester F’s can't be replaced during the school year, meaning the student-athlete would have to sit out the following season, be it winter or spring.
“Our kids know if they want to play ball here, they don’t make the F’s,” said Mayer. “You don’t send your kid to school to make an F. It’s not okay to make F’s.”
But don’t expect many other schools to raise academic requirements.
“We all try to stay on a level field, whether it be our three high schools, our region, the state,” said South Pointe’s Rogers. “We just try to keep it fair for everyone. If the state bumps up requirements, then yes Rock Hill in my opinion would follow suit.”
Don't count on the league bumping up requirements any time soon though. Singleton said that the High School League focuses more on increasing participation in its ranks than being in line with NCAA's eligibility requisites.
McDonald doesn’t think the NCAA is trying to indirectly influence high schools into raising their minimum GPA’s. Instead he hopes the new requirements spur “people to educate the kids a little more. The number of kids that don’t know the core course distribution or the GPA that corresponds with their test score… it’s tough when you see a kid that hasn’t been advised correctly.”
It’s understandable that schools wouldn’t want to give opposing schools a competitive edge.
“Everybody gets tied up in wins and I like to win too,” said Rollings. “But in the end it’s about helping these kids get in school and get an education.”
Indian Land, with its cheap gas and fireworks stalls, is literally and figuratively a long way from “Bed Stuy.”
Felder was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s, bustling and potentially dangerous Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, known locally as Bed Stuy and the home of luminaries like Jay-Z, Mike Tyson, Chris Rock, and Jackie Gleason. When Felder reached middle school, his mother decided to take her son away from encroaching gangs and low expectations. She moved him to Indian Land.
“She thought it was a better environment,” Felder said about his mom. “There’s always gonna be distractions wherever you go, but I can keep my head down here.”
Between Mayer, guidance counselor Marisa King, and other teachers and administrators, there is a team of folks looking out for Felder.
“Everybody cares,” Felder said. “That’s a big help when you’ve got everybody on your back wanting you to do good.”
The extra attention has paid off early in his high school career. Felder had nothing lower than a C on his last report card. He's already aware of what's required for him to play college sports, a goal he clearly cherishes. For Felder it's simple: “I gotta’ keep being on point,” he said. “Keep getting good grades, keep asking my teachers for help and staying after school as I do; just whatever will make me better.”
One positive unintended consequence of the NCAA's new eligibility standards? A ninth grader fully aware of what's required to play college sports.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T