Even though he grew up in Serbia, Lazar Nikolic always watched American college basketball. Devotedly, and as frequently as possible.
From an early age, Nikolic harbored dreams of someday crossing the Atlantic Ocean to play NCAA basketball. This summer that dream at long last became a reality...and then, at least for a few harrowing hours, it appeared it was all going to be snatched away within the abyss of paperwork required by the NCAA to clear international athletes for collegiate competition.
All's well that ended well for Nikolic, sort of. After being briefly declared as a non-qualifier this summer, the freshman guard has gotten up to speed with his Buffaloes teammates through the preseason. Yet the myriad hurdles he had to wade through weren't traversed without consequences. Not only was Nikolic unable to compete with CU during its four-game trip through Italy in August, but since he was not yet cleared Nikolic couldn't even meet up with his teammates — even though CU played one of their four exhibitions at the club Nikolic called home for years. Moreover, until Nikolic was cleared by the NCAA Eligibility Center (formerly known as the Clearinghouse) he couldn't even begin classes at CU.
Ultimately Nikolic missed his first week of classes and had to pay his own way from Europe to Boulder. Though he had brought international athletes into his program several times before, the experience Nikolic endured stirred the ire of CU coach Tad Boyle.
"We were on the phone with him daily like, 'Lazar, hang in there. It's going to be okay. We're going to get this done. We've got to clear this hurdle. Just hang in there,'" Boyle said. "Can you imagine the kid? This is my chance to go to America? This is my future? Does anybody have any idea how that makes him feel? The angst. This is weeks. And now he misses the first week of school and flies over here on his own dime. We could have paid for him. He would've had to pay from Belgrade to Milan or wherever we were. Meet the team, we pay for him to come home. We come back without him, and now he has to pay his own way from Belgrade to Boulder."
Much of Boyle's angst stemmed from what he believes is too rigid a system wherein a prospective student-athlete must be cleared academically before getting cleared as an amateur (i.e., making sure said athlete was never paid at any of his clubs). The NCAA refuted these issues are tackled in a precise order and that academics and amateurism are handled hand-in-hand, insisting instead that member institutions (in this case, CU) often choose to clear one issue before diving into the other (CU's compliance department declined to comment on this story).
Nevertheless, because of the rapid growth of the attraction of NCAA athletics for athletes from around the world, clearing international athletes on a case-by-case basis has never been more complicated.
A Crowded Field
The lure of NCAA athletics has never been more attractive across the globe. For the 2016-17 academic year, Elizabeth Thompson, an associate director with the NCAA's Eligibility Center, estimates around 12,000 prospective student-athletes applied for clearance to play NCAA athletics. That figure includes athletes at the Division I and II levels, and it also is the number of prospective student-athletes that applied to be cleared, not the final tally of international athletes who ultimately competed.
In 2007, when the NCAA Clearinghouse morphed into the Eligibility Center, that number was under 1,000. The number of applicants, and the requisite paperwork involved, has multiplied 12-fold in just a decade.
"It's really a case-by-case basis," Thompson said. "The majority of our prospective student-athletes don't have any issue with it. It depends on the sport, how long ago they participated with a specific club or team, if that club or team is still in existence or not, the interaction that the recruiting institution is having. They're involved in the process to gain that information as well with the prospective student-athlete. So it's really a joint effort, not only by our offices, but with the member institution recruiting the student, and the student-athlete themselves."
CU's United Nations
International athletes donning the black-and-gold at CU is nothing new. Yet rarely have international athletes thrived in such prominent roles across the entire athletics department.
As Nikolic gets set for his first season with the men's basketball team, 30-year old Australian kicker James Stefanou is enjoying a solid rookie season for the football team. A freshman from New Zealand, Marty Puketapu, leads the women's soccer team in goals. And, as usual, the bulk of the tennis and skiing teams are comprised of student-athletes from Europe and Australia.
Like the college sports landscape as a whole, CU has welcomed a greater influx of international athletes. For some coaches who deal with the hurdles involved with getting those young men and women to Colorado on a regular basis, such as longtime Buffaloes ski coach Richard Rokos, the myriad levels of bureaucratic red tape still pales in comparison to the life-changing opportunities NCAA athletics provides.
"There are individual challenges. Maybe someone comes from a very strange academic environment or social," Rokos said. "Maybe they come from beyond the polar circle and were never exposed to chaos like this, organized chaos of modern society.
"The NCAA, it's a very unique organization. I respect the specifics of the individual sports too much. Obviously it's set for basketball, football, basketball. Big sports. But here comes skiing with all their needs and uniqueness and it somehow (accounted for) in the system. It's challenging, but it's a great environment and the bottom line is the NCAA is the only organization providing academic opportunities for skiers and athletes worldwide. I know in Europe they all keep an eye on the NCAA, because they all want to come here and be part of it."