As incoming college freshmen go, it would seem you couldn't ask for much more than Andre Miller, an 18-year-old black student from Verbum Dei High School in hard-scrabble South Central Los Angeles.
In high school, he earned a 3.2 grade-point average and graduated in the top 20 percent of his class. He was popular, punctual and polite and steered clear of the dead-end street life that surrounded him. He studied earnestly and was known to stay after class to ask questions of his teachers. He also was an all-state point guard on a 29-3 basketball team and the state's Division 4 Player of the Year.When Miller enrolled at the University of Utah this fall, his teachers and classmates were proud. "I've been here seven years, and he's one of the hardest working students I've ever had," says Miller's former prep English teacher and mentor, Mike Kearney. "He has excellent study habits. He's very conscientious. He's just a delightful kid."
All this notwithstanding, Miller isn't quite good enough for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Under the NCAA's controversial Proposition 48, he is considered a non-qualifying, at-risk student-athlete. The reason? He could score no better than 690 on the Scholastic Achievement Test, just 10 points off the NCAA's minimum requirement - or one more correct answer.
As a Prop. 48 student, Miller will pay a heavy price. He cannot accept a basketball scholarship from Utah, which means, according to Ute coach Rick Majerus, "financial hardship; his mother will have to obtain a substantial loan (to pay for his freshman year at Utah), and Andre will have to get a job." He also cannot play games or practice with the Utes this season, and he will permanently lose a year of athletic eligibility. Majerus thinks there is one more penalty.
"He's been branded with that stigma; he's a Prop kid," says Majerus. "It's the modern-day scarlett letter. Instead of an A on his chest, he gets a D, for dummy. That's how he feels. He wants to crawl in a hole. This is an emotional scar he has to carry."
Miller is one of thousands of young men who have been snagged by Prop. 48. He could be Exhibit A for Prop. 48 critics who think the rule is unfair in some cases. When Miller's high school teachers and administrators learned of his difficulty with the SAT, they sent letters of recommendation to the university, the NCAA and the SAT officials. Even Sen. Orrin Hatch, a friend of Majerus, lobbied the SAT people in Miller's behalf.
Adopted in 1986, Prop. 48 requires incoming freshmen to have a minimum of a 2.0 grade point average in 11 core curriculum classes and a score of 700 on the SAT. Its purpose was to force student-athletes to come to college more prepared so they could be successful students. It was supposed to send a message to high school athletes: study now or else.
Prop. 48 so far has achieved its ultimate goal - graduation rates have increased among collegiate student-athletes - but the rule still has its critics. Miller's case exposes the thorniest issue in the whole Prop. 48 controversy - test scores. Prop. 48 requires incoming freshmen to have a minimum GPA and a test score. Why both? The test score guards against grade inflation and poor high school standards. But critics say that use of the SAT (and the rival ACT) is wrong, citing the following reasons:
1) The SAT score is not necessarily a predictor of academic success (although, in combination with a GPA, that certainly is usually the case). The NCAA itself included a loophole in Prop. 48 that circumvents test scores in certain circumstances, but, strangely enough, it doesn't allow it.
"The rule says if someone has above a 3-point GPA in 11 core courses and has taken an additional two core courses, he can apply for a waiver (of the SAT)," says Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill. "It fits Andre perfectly. He had 14 core classes. But the NCAA told us they don't make exceptions for that. They said, `Yeah, you can apply for a waiver, but we've never granted one.' "
2) The SAT doesn't always consider mitigating circumstances. For example, Miller had already taken the SAT five times before it was determined that he had learning disabilities.
"He's really a very bright kid, he just doesn't test well," says Majerus, who initiated tests after noticing that Miller was a slow reader. "He has documented learning disabilities - a form of dyslexia and test anxiety." The NCAA granted Miller a sixth try at the SAT, untimed, and he produced his best score, 690.
3) The SAT is culturally biased. Much of the test deals with language, but, for better or worse, not the language that many kids hear in everyday conversation, particularly inner-city kids.
"Very often, the only time these kids hear what the majority of the population calls standard English is in the classroom," says Kearney. "The jargon of the streets is much more prevalent, even among college-educated parents when they're in their own setting. It's almost an entirely different language. We spent an inordinate amount of time on SAT words. Andre was excellent. But the reality was, he was never around anyone who used them."
While the required test scores of Prop. 48 are hardly demanding by most standards, the language portion of the test makes it a stretch for a segment of the population.
"Most of us laugh," says Kearney. "Who couldn't get 700 (out of 1,600) on the SAT? But that's not the case, and I'm at a loss to explain it. We've had valedictorians who couldn't get 700 on the SAT."
It is because of cases like these that some think there must be a better way than Prop. 48 and the SAT. Hill, for instance, would prefer that each university, not the NCAA, decide what students it will admit and then deal with them once they're at the university, especially now that the NCAA has rules that require regular progress toward graduation.
"Rather than cut them off in the beginning, hold their feet to the fire while they're here," says Hill. However, that is probably too much to expect. After all, it was academic abuses by individual schools and athletes that forced the creation of Prop. 48. It also wouldn't send the same message to high schools as Prop. 48.
However, Hill's suggestion that Prop. 48 students should be allowed to earn back their lost year of eligibility if they are on schedule to graduate has real merit, although some think it would weaken the rule and the message.
Despite the cries of detractors, Prop. 48's proponents are claiming victory. Graduation rates among white and black athletes have risen to the same level as the student body as a whole, and the number of blacks on athletic scholarships has actually increased, defying the frequent claim that Prop. 48 would deny opportunities to minorities. There is talk now of raising Prop. 48's standards, which is sure to raise the same old arguments, particularly those relating to opportunities for minorities.
But Dr. Leroy Walker, the first black president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and a member of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, doesn't buy it. He recently told Sports Illustrated, "I remember being asked in 1986 if black student-athletes should be exempted from Prop. 48. My response was, You're asking me to tell all black high schoolers, `You're too dumb to get a C average, too dumb to get a 700 on the boards.' I don't feel inclined to do that . . . Empirical evidence tells me clearly that the student-athlete will rise to the occasion if the expectations are raised and are reasonable."
For his part, Miller just missed those expectations, but like most Prop. 48 athletes he still has ample opportunities. To regain his eligibility and his scholarship next year, he is required to pass 36 hours and maintain "good academic standing," - however that is defined by each conference (a 1.7 GPA in the Western Athletic Conference). In other words, he is finished with the SAT. But no matter what happens, Prop. 48 will cost Miller a year's tuition and a year of eligibility.
"He would have been an impact player for us this year, no question," says Majerus, "but forget about that. This is not about winning games - I just feel bad for Andre."
Miller already has overcome considerable adversity to get this far. Like so many of his peers, he has had many trials in his young life. He declined to be interviewed for this story (he feared it would "sound like sour grapes"), but according to Kearney and Majerus, Miller's father left the family years ago, and his only sibling, a brother, died after a prolonged illness.
"Andre helped nurse him; he put in an IV and things like that," says Kearney. "It was pretty traumatic, and then to have that kind of situation in the middle of Watts (a rough section of L.A.)."
With support from his stepfather and mother, Miller was a disciplined, able high school student under trying circumstances. As Kearney notes, education and preparation for college for inner-city kids (read: minorities) is made all the more difficult by poor school systems and the environment itself.
"Survival is more of a concern than what book you're reading," says Kearney. "You get on them for not doing their home work, then you find out something was going on in their neighborhood, like a shooting, which made it hard to get homework done. The kid who makes it out is very rare, and Andre is very rare."