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Division I leaders call for sweeping changes to college athletics

By Ronnie Ramos

NCAA Division I presidents concluded their two-day summit by calling for bold, sweeping changes to improve intercollegiate athletics.

Saying they were “fed up” with cheating and a lack of accountability, the presidents were adamant about advancing several major initiatives they want addressed – and decided quickly:

  • Rewrite the NCAA rule book to reduce the number of rules and focus on the most significant issues.
  • Improve academic standards for student-athletes and tie a team’s academic performance to participation in all NCAA championships.
  • Revamp the NCAA penalty structure and increase the levels of violations.
  • Refocus the NCAA enforcement staff to concentrate on major infractions.
  • Strengthen the academic requirements for incoming freshman and student-athletes who transfer from two-year institutions.

“What stands out, above everything else, is the unanimity of thinking among university presidents who were assembled,” said Penn State President Graham Spanier.

 “There is an unwavering determination to change a number of things about intercollegiate athletics today. Presidents are fed up with the rule breaking that is out there, we are determined to elevate the academic standards. We are concerned about the rapidly escalating costs of running intercollegiate athletics programs.”

During the two days of discussions, it became clear the presidents also wanted the changes fast-tracked.

“The presidents all came together with a very clear, strong consensus that status quo and continued order of the day is insufficient and that we need to have change in a number of key areas and we need to have it quickly,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert, who convened the summit with more than 50 Division I presidents.

Not all of the changes will be popular with everyone, Spanier said. “Some of these things our coaches and our boosters might not like, but we need to do what I think you are going to see happen in the next year. “

Tim White, president of the University of California-Riverside and a member of the NCAA Executive Committee, echoed Spanier’s resolve. “Quite frankly, it’s time for tough love in intercollegiate athletics.  It’s as simple as that. It has to be timely, but it has to be tough.”

After the summit, Emmert and several of the presidents provided an overview of the areas where the most significant changes will occur:

Revising the NCAA rule book

“We would love to throw out the rule book and start all over again, but that's actually impractical,” Emmert said.

 “We all agree the NCAA rule book needs some serious editing.  The rules are in some cases too complex, unenforceable, in some ways convoluted and in some ways even irrelevant.  We agreed we will, in very short order – meaning months, not years – bring back to the Division I Board of Directors a set of revisions to our rule book that will do two things: clear up the ancillary issues that are in the rule book and focus our attention on those things that are serious threats to the integrity of intercollegiate athletics.

“We want to focus on those things that actually make a difference in our institutions and not necessarily those things that deal with communication devices or whether or not a bagel has peanut butter on it… We can’t legislate integrity. But we can define it and we can insist on it and that is what we intend to do.”

Added Ed Ray, president of Oregon State and chair of the NCAA’s Executive Committee: “The issue of integrity in the game is so important that we need to make certain the rules we operate with don’t inadvertently get in our way … This is an important area where we think we need to take a new and creative look at the way we are managing rules and regulations so that we don’t get distracted by small matters that keep us from the issues that need to be addressed.”

Enforcement and penalty structure

A significant part of Wednesday's conversations focused on how the NCAA should focus its enforcement efforts and how to best create an effective penalty structure.   “We have to make sure that we have a set of penalties associated with those serious rules violations that provide strong disincentives,” Emmert said. “Those penalties need to create a healthy fear of being caught or the implications of being caught.”

The presidents want more options than the current two-tiered approach of minor secondary violations and major violations. “Those violations today are too crude in their definition between just secondary and majors, and we need a multi-tiered model for defining inappropriate behavior,” Emmert said.

The intended outcome is to more clearly define the major violations and then devote more of the NCAA’s enforcement efforts in those areas. 

That would serve as an effective deterrent, Penn State’s Spanier said.  Violators “should be afraid now, if they are going to go out and break any rules – because people have had enough of that.

“We are going to de-emphasize the nuisance rules no one cares about and focus significantly greater resources on the enforcement of major infractions… The folks that are trying to disrupt the integrity of intercollegiate athletics in this country are going to have to be held more accountable than has been the case in the past.” 

Improving academic requirements

The presidents endorsed plans to raise the academic standards of student-athletes. “We had a clear, strong consensus that we want to make sure that our students are just that: that they are students as well as athletes;  that they are serious students, they are committed to being successful in the classroom and we are going to hold institutions  more accountable than in the past,” Emmert said.

The Division I Board of Directors will discuss such a proposal at its meeting Thursday.

The presidents also want to raise the academic requirements for incoming freshmen and those students who transfer from a two-year institution to a DI school.  “We agreed to bring to our board a set of proposals around increasing initial eligibility expectations,” Emmert said. “We agreed we would increase the expectations around GPA standards, increase the expectations around the core curriculum the students must take.”

There also was consensus that appropriate academic performance should be required of all participants in NCAA championships.  “We came to strong agreement that we want to make a decision to set clear academic expectations for participation in any of our tournaments,” Emmert said. “If you don’t meet those expectations, you will not be allowed to participate in our tournaments – including the men’s basketball tournament.”

What happens next

The Division I Board of Directors is scheduled to meet Thursday and then again during the upcoming academic year in October, January 2012 and April 2012. It is expected that the board will be asked to consider these presidential initiatives during each of those meetings.   “I wouldn’t describe this as an emergency but there is clearly a strong sense of urgency,” Emmert said.

Penn State’s Spanier was asked about that sense of urgency and what was different now. “What is different now is that a lot of things have reached the boiling point,” he said. “Under the NCAA’s current governance structure, the Board of Directors has the authority to make some changes that historically it has been reluctant to make because we’re a membership organization. But the presidents have reached a point where they’ve said there's too many things that are not working well and so the board needs to be prepared to take stronger actions directly.”

Judy Genshaft, president of the University of South Florida and chair of the Division I Board of Directors, said the board is ready to act. “We want to take some action in a more rapid fashion and we do have the prerogative of doing so,” she said.  “We plan to have this year as a very, very impactful year for NCAA and for all the student-athletes.  We are prepared to move forward as rapidly as we receive the recommendations – and they will start tomorrow.”