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Academic concerns could relax DI recruiting rules

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick

Division I is considering loosening some recruiting rules to allow coaches to communicate in writing with prospects as young as eighth grade – but only on the subject of the new academic standards for DI student-athletes.

Incoming Division I student-athletes are not required to meet the higher academic standards until 2016. But because of the nature of some of the changes, prospective student-athletes starting high school this fall need to be aware of the new expectations so they can decide which high school courses they need to take.

Communicating with prospects has always been a challenge. The membership adopted recruiting rules to protect high school students and help them focus on academics instead of college athletics. However, some of the rules have had the opposite effect, pulling college coaches out of living rooms and preventing them from imparting the message that academic success is crucial for college student-athletes.

Recognizing that dichotomy, the Division I Committee on Academic Performance began exploring different ways to communicate with prospective student-athletes about the new expectations. One possible solution is to allow coaches greater access to young people, not to recruit them but to help them understand the new standards.

“In suggesting the loosening of rules, the committee put recruiting concerns aside and came together as educators for the good of all student-athletes,” said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president for academic and membership affairs. “Of course, some parameters will be in place. The committee wants to make as many student-athletes as possible aware of what’s expected of them. The earlier these students know the expectations, the more prepared they can be academically and the more successful they can be in college.”

The committee is interested in allowing coaches to immediately provide any and all academic information to prospects in eighth grade or older. The information could be provided both in hard copy and electronically in some format that is standard to all schools.

Committee members will also review the allowable duties of non-coaching staff to allow them to provide significant academic standards education to prospects and parents. The committee envisions that all contact would be limited to the academic standards and the amount of contact would be unlimited.

The committee will seek input from the various coaches associations and then work with both the Division I Legislative Council and the Board of Directors to craft an appropriate proposal. Because of the legislative moratorium imposed by the Board of Directors due to the ongoing revision of the Division I Manual, any legislation would have to be adopted by the Board as part of the presidential reform agenda.

Committee member Michael Cross, athletics director at Bradley, said he had concerns about illicit recruiting that could take place but agreed that the opportunity is an interesting one.

“Talking about initial-eligibility standards is great, especially when you have the leverage of the coaching staff putting that message out there,” Cross said. “We might consider broadening it to include academic information of any sort.”

In addition to a change in recruiting rules, the committee also discussed using public service announcements and targeting school district superintendents to get the message to the people who need to hear it most. Several member schools have launched efforts of their own to educate recruits in their local area and nationally.

Membership enhancements to the rule

In light of membership feedback, the committee also is considering whether the enhanced standards need to be modified. Some are concerned about the impact on men’s basketball and football student-athletes.

Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner Tom Yeager said that was the biggest concern he heard from his basketball coaches – that a large percentage of their current players wouldn’t meet the standard.

“I remember back to Prop 48 (a rule adopted in 1983 that increased academic standards) when it was adopted, and while the percentage of minority students didn’t change over time, it was a different group of minority male basketball players,” Yeager said. “As people say that this is going to impact 40 percent of the African-American male basketball players – implying that it will change the racial makeup of the teams – the reality shows that it really doesn’t. It just interchanges them with other minorities who are better students.

“This isn’t as draconian as people are led to believe.”

Others are concerned that the academic redshirt year the new rules create (student-athletes who meet a slightly modified version of the current standard but not the enhanced standard can practice and receive a scholarship but can’t compete) will have a negative effect on the student-athletes who fall in that category.

Ohio Valley Conference Commissioner Beth DeBauche said the presidents in her league are committed to helping student-athletes find a successful path to graduation. But they believe that there might be a better way.

“Once you recruit a student, you make a level of commitment to that student. We want to make sure that they ultimately make their path toward graduation,” DeBauche said. “We would like additional considerations for a funding source that can really help provide additional support in academics and life skills. Is there more guidance regarding what an institution should provide for at-risk students? We want to make sure student-athletes are prepared.”

DeBauche encouraged the committee to study the impact of the changes and see if another approach could be identified to accomplish the same goal and also to identify some type of programming to assist institutions in helping the student-athletes who serve an academic redshirt year progress toward graduation.

She also suggested that a mechanism for opting out of the academic redshirt year be created, perhaps if a student-athlete performs at a certain level in a summer bridge session or initial term.

The Committee on Academic Performance will continue to engage with members interested in providing input about the enhanced standards and will keep an open mind about suggesting improvements to the Board of Directors. Earlier this year, the Board delayed the effective date of the standards as a result of feedback from the membership.