The decision of the NCAA Student-Athlete Reinstatement Staff to reinstate Cam Newton’s eligibility with no penalty produced a response that was loud and clear. Not one, not two, but four commissioners of major conferences have spoken out. All disagreed with the decision itself and/or expressed worry about the potential impact of the decision going forward. That has prompted a response from NCAA President Mark Emmert stating that the NCAA membership will review the recruiting rules.
I don’t share some of the doom and gloom regarding the impact of the decision going forward. Case precedent, NCAA or otherwise, extends only as far as its facts. And here, the facts are that no money changed hands, the student-athlete did not know about the activity, and the student-athlete did not enroll at the institution where the solicitation occurred. Case precedent can always be extended to logically similar cases, but that takes additional decisions, each of which is a chance to stop a trip down the slippery slope.
There appears to be an unstoppable momentum behind some change though. That change could take one of three forms.
New Reinstatement Guidelines
It’s important to note that a violation was committed and it did impact Newton’s eligibility. It just did not impact his eligibility as much as some wanted. The Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement (which oversees the NCAA staff that made the decision) could establish stricter penalties, which would likely include a requirement that the student-athlete be withheld from at least some competition.
Slight Legislative Change
Legislation could be proposed that would address the exact situation in the case. Specifically, Bylaw 12.3.3, the bylaw cited by the SAR staff, could be editted to read something like this:
12.3.3 – Athletics Scholarship Agent.
Any individual, agency or organization that represents a prospective student-athlete or his or her parent(s), guardian(s), or immediate family for compensation in placing the prospective student-athlete in a collegiate institution as a recipient of institutional financial aid shall be considered an agent or organization marketing the individual’s athletics ability or reputation. (additions in bold)
Major Legislative Change
An alternate new version of Bylaw 12.3.3 may read very similarly, but would have a much greater impact:
12.3.3 – Athletics Scholarship Agent.
Any individual, agency or organization that represents a prospective student-athlete or an individual associated with a prospective student-athlete for compensation in placing the prospective student-athlete in a collegiate institution as a recipient of institutional financial aid shall be considered an agent or organization marketing the individual’s athletics ability or reputation.(additions in bold)
The phrase “individual associated with a prospective student-athlete” has a defined meaning, in men’s basketball at least, from the interpretations issued by the Division I Board of Directors in November 2009. It includes parents, guardians, family members, coaches and anyone who is associated with the prospect as a result of their athletics ability or reputation, or participation in men’s basketball.
Along with the amendment to the bylaw, that portion of the interpretation could be removed and placed in a separate interpretation (or incorporated into an actual bylaw) applicable to all sports. It would not however expand the new men’s basketball recruiting regulations to all sports, since they still mention men’s basketball in the interpretation and the relevant legislation.
None of these are mutually exclusive, and all three exist on a continuum with many other options in between. I have no idea what the Legislative Council, Board of Directors, or Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement will do. What I do know is that it would be foolish to act hastily.
The Board of Directors is empowered to propose and adopt legislation that is of an “emergency” or “noncontroversial” nature. An emergency exists when:
- Significant values or harm are at stake; and
- The use of the regular legislative cycle is likely to cause undue hardship to the Association or the Division I membership because of the delay in its effective date.
While preventing pay-for-play is a significant value in the NCAA rules, it’s hard to see the undue hardship that is suffered between now and January 2012, the next opportunity to pass brand new legislation if it travels through the regular legislative cycle. Especially if we’re talking only about the limited issue of not suspending student-athletes who didn’t know that an institution they didn’t go to did not give their parents any money.
Legislation is noncontroversial if it meets the following criteria:
- Broader consultation and debate are unlikely to improve the proposal in any substantial way.
- Significant disagreement or alternative points of view will not be generated.
- Such proposals do not have a significant impact (unanticipated consequences, undesirable precedent) on existing legislation or proposed legislation.
Considering the options for dealing with this issue, there’s strong evidence that more debate will lead to a better decision and there are more alternatives than even the ones above. And considering the proposal is designed to strength penalties in cases where a prospect or student-athlete might not even know a violation is occurring, it seems unlikely that all consequences will be anticipated in such a short time.
For instance, imagine if a high school coach could harm a student-athlete’s eligibility at every institution just by discussing a pay-for-pay plan with a booster at one school, regardless of whether the prospect knows about it. Third parties gain a valuable tool to dictate where prospects enroll, and gain allies in boosters who have control of a stick, in addition to the existing carrots, to entice prospects to enroll at their favorite institution.
The idea of a student-athlete being shopped to colleges by parents, coaches, or anyone else is certainly outrageous, to use President Emmert’s words. And the notion of significant punishment for even attempted violations of the recruiting and amateurism legislation has merit. But just like the July recruiting period in men’s basketball, there are too many moving parts in this area to use a blunt object. Another year-long study with legislation to be voted on over a year from now won’t please many commentators. But it’s the best way to close a loophole without opening another.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.