If you ask someone what the most important rule in the NCAA Manual is, you’re likely to get a range of responses. Amateurism, academic eligibility rules, and ethical conduct are likely to be among the most popular. Some might point to rules on scholarship limits or initial eligibility instead.
All of those might be among the most important rules in the NCAA. But in Division I, it is hard to argue with the five-year rule as being the most important. Here is Bylaw 14.2.1 in all its glory:
14.2.1 – Five-Year Rule.
A student-athlete shall complete his or her seasons of participation within five calendar years from the beginning of the semester or quarter in which the student-athlete first registered for a minimum full-time program of studies in a collegiate institution, with time spent in the armed services, on official religious missions or with recognized foreign aid services of the U.S. government being excepted. For international students, service in the armed forces or on an official religious mission of the student’s home country is considered equivalent to such service in the United States.
The basics of the five-year rule state that once you start college, your Division I eligibility is gone after five years. And the only way to stop the march of the five-year rule is to join the military or go on a religious mission. There are some other exceptions for pregnancy and elite international competition. But for the vast majority of student-athletes, once the clock starts, it does not stop until the five years are up.
Combined with other rules like the core-curriculum time limitation and the delayed enrollment rules, the five-year clock establishes Division I eligibility as a privilege that can only be used to its maximum extent by keeping up with the responsibilities that the NCAA imposes on student-athletes. Fail to reach initial eligibility standards, fail to maintain academic eligibility or spend too long chasing professional athletics and your Division I eligibility simply vanishes.
The five-year rule is certainly a harsh rule. Divisions II and III do not have it, opting instead for the more forgiving 10-semester/15-quarter rule. The 10-semester/15-quarter rule can be stopped simply by withdrawing from school or dropping below full time. But even that rule has the same issues as the five-year clock.
Collegiate eligibility is often thought of as being four years of playing and one redshirt year. The reality is that collegiate eligibility is four years of playing that must be completed within five years, leaving one year of cushion for anything that might happen to a student-athlete during their collegiate career. Redshirts, medical hardship waivers, transfer residence, nonqualifier residence, financial difficulties, academic ineligibility and reinstatement conditions all have to share that one year.
If something outside of the control of the student-athlete and the institution takes away two years, the NCAA has a process for fixing that. But if such an event takes away only one year and the student or institution has control of another year (e.g. redshirt, transfer residence, etc.), the student-athlete is normally unable to get the lost year back.
Boil all this down and the fundamental question is whether student-athletes should have a “right to redshirt”. That is, should a student-athlete be able to redshirt at least once for whatever reason, and then receive an extension to their clock if something outside their control occurs?
One option would be for Division I members to adopt this Division II waiver for student-athletes who redshirt during their freshman year. That would cover cases where freshman choose to redshirt or are redshirted by the coaching staff, and solves a recurring issue in clock extension waivers where five year-old medical documentation is need to prove an injury during the first year. It would not allow student-athletes forced to sit out for a year due to transfer the same flexibility though.
It is all a question of costs. The fewer exceptions to the five-year rule there are, the higher the cost to student-athletes when they choose the wrong school or choose to redshirt. A six year is possible, but exceptions would be trickier.
With 400,000 athletes, it would be impossible to have a rule that never creates a single bad result and still have the concept of eligibility that runs out or can be exhausted. The trick is balancing how many athletes run out of time with how many athletes and institutions are manipulating the system or failing to hold up their end of the bargain. The five-year rule gets it mostly right, and just needs tweaks to strike an even better balance.
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.