To say that oversigning is a major issue in college football is incorrect. Roster management is the issue, with oversigning being just one facet of the larger controversy. It would be absurdly easy to eliminate oversigning with no improvement in student-athlete welfare.
All sports have roster management challenges. The other headcount sports have to manage relatively small scholarship limits in gigantic, full scholarship chunks. Equivalency sports have the complexity of varying amounts of aid and a renewal process that includes increases and decreases as well as renewals and nonrenewals. Men’s sports have roster maximums, women’s sports may have roster minimums. And baseball combines all of them, with NCAA limits on counters, equivalencies, roster size, and minimum scholarship amounts, plus how MLB’s liberal draft policies create uncertainty once a player is a junior.
The challenges of roster management become a controversy in football for three reasons. First and most obvious is that football garners the most attention. Second, the physical nature of the game and the large roster size make depth as important as top talent for some teams, magnifying what happens to each and every scholarship player. And third, football’s initial counter rule means the roster of incoming players comes under the same pressures as the student-athletes already on the team, during a recruiting and signing process that is becoming more popular with fans.
In responding to Tennessee head football coach Derek Dooley’s criticism of the SEC’s (and next year NCAA’s) new limit of 25 signees, David Wunderlich proposed just that: eliminate the limit on initial counters and adopt a Big Ten-style oversigning rule based on the 85 overall counter limit. That would give coaches greater flexibility by removing one limit and basing any signing limit on the more fundamental of football’s two scholarship limits. The problem is that in the current environment, the Big Ten’s rule does not scale.
If you were to ask when an athletic scholarship naturally ends, there are two correct answers. One is that scholarships end when the period of award is over, which for a long time has been a maximum of one year. But student-athletes have the opportunity to appeal any time their scholarship is reduced, non-renewed, or cancelled until they exhaust their eligibility. If a football player redshirts, graduates in four years, then walks in to quit the team, he still must be offered the opportunity to appeal the cancellation of his scholarship.
Key to the Big Ten’s oversigning limit is evaluating why scholarships are ending and judging whether schools should be able to replace that student-athlete with a new recruit. The stability and homogeneousness of the Big Ten’s membership has made this workable. Whether it remains workable in a larger conference with more fluid and diverse membership is questionable. And the idea of the NCAA running such an office sounds like a trap for the Association.
Without this evaluation, the oversigning limit is meaningless because a coach can simply clear out enough scholarships for whatever size class he wants by nonrenewing more current players before signing day. Those student-athletes might even be given the opportunity to earn back their scholarship during spring practice, creating the same situation we are trying to eliminate, where 90 current and prospective student-athletes might be competing for 85 scholarships. The only win for student-athlete welfare is that the scholarships are not renewed prior to signing day, so student-athletes could seek out a new school.
But if Proposal 2011–97 survives the ongoing override vote and multi-year scholarships become an option, the need for an evaluation of why a scholarship ended by a conference would be reduced if not eliminated. If four- or five-year agreements are the standard, then they are close enough to the end of the right to an appeal that they become more useful. If different lengths of scholarships are offered, athletes offered only one or two years of aid are on notice that their scholarship offers no guarantees beyond those couple of years.
Proposal 2010–74, the Big Ten’s failed baseball oversigning proposal, offers a guide for a potential rule. That proposal would have prevented baseball teams from oversigning by more than one equivalency spread over two individuals. But because it was designed for the limited time between MLB’s draft and signing deadline, the limit was set as written offers to prospects plus executed agreements with current student-athletes for the following year. As a result, the rule would have had little effect during the fall and part of the spring signing periods.
But with multi-year scholarships, football teams would have some agreements already executed for following years. If four-year or longer scholarships are the norm, then most agreements will already cover the next year. The rule might look something like this:
18.104.22.168.1 Executed Financial Aid Awards and Written Offers Exceeding Maximum Allowable Awards – Football. In football, for an ensuing academic year, the combination of executed athletically related financial aid awards and outstanding written offers of athletically related financial aid (per Bylaw 22.214.171.124) to prospective student-athletes and student-athletes shall not exceed the maximum number of permissible awards (see Bylaw 126.96.36.199).
I would add the following as an additional limitation:
188.8.131.52.1.1 Cancellation of Multi-Year Agreements. An institution must count agreements that have been cancelled against the limit in Bylaw 184.108.40.206.1 until the student-athlete has exhausted or waived all appeal opportunities under Bylaw 220.127.116.11.
To clear roster space, a coach would have to find a permissible reason to cancel a scholarship during the period of award and complete the appeal process all prior to signing day. Adding in an exception if a coach grants permission to contact every Division I institution (an “unconditional release”) or pairing this oversigning limit with a transfer rule that granted a great deal of freedom to a student-athlete whose scholarship was cancelled would complicate matters, but would also discourage more roster turnover.
As much as roster management generally and oversigning in particular are seen as a numbers game, the controversy lies in individual cases. The Big Ten’s current rule does a good job of addressing the individuals potentially impacted when a school oversigns. If multi-year scholarships survive, there will be less need for conferences to examine the decisions on individual scholarships. Whether a scholarship ends prior to a student graduating or exhausting his eligibility will be based more on the scholarship he accepted or meeting the more objective requirements of the agreement.