Last year when it seemed like the Pac-10 would expand all the way to the Great Plains and break apart the Big XII, college athletics was at a crossroads. Ultimately college athletics decided not to take the road that would have lead to massive changes in the structure of conferences. Instead, the great conference shake-up never occurred.
Now in 2011, a similar set of forces seem to be gathering. With a presidential retreat upcoming, SEC commissioner Mike Slive has added to the debate with an agenda for reform he hopes will become the blueprint for change in the NCAA over the next year or so. The sweeping agenda focuses on financial aid to athletes, initial eligibility, recruiting, and the enforcement process. And were it all to be implemented, it is no incremental change.
Full Cost of Attendance Scholarships
This debate has been bubbling for months now, and Mr. Slive did not introduce a specific plan. He did add one element to the debate, suggesting that money be added to the Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund, which has previously been used to cover some of these costs. The SAOF could be the mechanism used by the NCAA to maintain some degree of competitive equity and assist as many institutions as possible in meeting the increased costs.
If scholarships were required to be awarded until a student-athlete graduates or exhaust his or her eligibility, it would have a significant impact on recruiting. With standards in place for canceling a student-athlete’s aid, issues like oversigning and running athletes off would be greatly reduced.
But if institutions are simply given the option to award athletics aid for multiple years at a time, recruiting would be revolutionized. Every sport, including football and basketball, would become more like an equivalency sport. Think of a scholarship as four or five total years, with the ability to offer quarters or fifths of that total scholarship. Football coaches will be sitting down with baseball coaches to get a handle on the new environment.
Degree Completion Awards
The ability to award any amount of aid for any amount of time to student-athletes working to finish their degree seems like a big advantage to richer programs. But the competitive impact is likely to be minimal. How many 18 year-olds are thinking about coming back for a sixth or seventh year of school? Many in football and men’s basketball don’t expect to be in school for four years in the first place. An easy piece of deregulation and a big win for student-athlete welfare.
Better Assistance for Future Professional Athletes
Currently the NCAA has a few ways to allow student-athletes with professional ambitions to get advice, but they are tightly regulated, and combine with league regulations on contact with student-athletes to limit the amount of information flowing to student-athletes. Alongside working with the leagues, the NCAA could deregulate Professional Sports Counseling Panels, which currently have limits on how many athletics staff members may be involved. Or go one step further, and require the panel to operate regularly as an element of institutional control.
Raise Minimum GPA for Initial Eligibility to 2.5
This was touted as the most noteworthy of Mr. Slive’s reforms, but it is a tweak compared to the next proposal. Raising the required GPA to 2.5 simply reinforces the NCAA’s position that the core course GPA is the best predictor of college success. But legislating how that GPA is obtained could be revolutionary.
Extend Annual Satisfactory Progress to High Schools
This is, by far, the biggest bombshell in Mr. Slive’s address. The problem, outlined by Mr. Slive, is that too many prospective student-athletes, especially in revenue sports, don’t get serious about academics until their junior or senior year. Requiring prospects to earn some number of core courses every year would hopefully cut back on these “mad dashes” that often include academically unsound or outright fraudulent means.
But the infrastructure to guide a prospect through this new environment simply doesn’t exist. High school guidance counselors struggle with the requirements already. And current recruiting rules prohibit any sort of direct contact until a recruit is finished with their sophomore year. To make annual progress work, the NCAA needs to allow and in fact encourage early recruiting.
Return of Partial Qualifiers
Partial qualifiers never went totally away, with partial waivers available for student-athletes who do not qualify. Mr. Slive’s reform package would bring them back as a part of the bylaws.
The key will be getting buy-in from conferences. Initial eligibility became an admissions standard when many conference adopted non-qualifier rules that prevented non-qualifiers from enrolling, forcing them to junior colleges. If the majority of conferences adopt partial qualifier rules preventing them from enrolling, we’re back to the same position we have now, but with tougher requirements.
Deregulate Communication With Recruits
Luckily for Mr. Slive, this is already happening. Although there was the disappointing defeat of Proposal 2010-30, the Athletics Personnel and Recruiting Cabinet will introduce the first state of Mr. Slive’s reform. Two proposals will go before the membership this year. One would end the ban on text messages and the other would eliminate the limit on how often a coach can call a recruit.
But going back to the annual progress requirement, at some point the membership will need to address the issue that 2010-30 could not overcome: when should we start the recruiting process? If initial eligibility starts with freshmen, the answer has to be to start recruiting with freshmen.
Merging Evaluation and Contact Periods
While this seems like basic common sense, it has enormous competitive impact, especially in football. If the spring evaluation period becomes a spring contact period, it effectively means that football coaches will be recruiting two classes at a time.
It also doesn’t eliminate the “bump” violation. Mr. Slive stated the prohibition on contact with a prospect at the site of competition would still exist. Where do most bump violations occur? At the site of competition.
Limiting Third Party Influence
My thoughts on the battle between scholastic and nonscholastic sports are well documented. To recap: nonscholastic sports are going to win. The NCAA membership can either accept that fact and encourage nonscholastic sports to develop with the proper structure and controls, or it can hope that high schools can make up ground already lost.
The NCAA should look beyond AAU and 7-on-7 to the day when elite high school football and men’s basketball student-athletes are no longer even considering their high school team. It’s happened in other sports, and it will spread to the revenue sports whether we like it or not.
More Classes of Violations
Mr. Slive is correct that the current distinction between major and secondary infractions causes the enforcement staff to pigeonhole violations into one or the other. But rather than creating more categories, the categories should be eliminated. At some point, different in each case, the enforcement staff should engage the Committee on Infractions for guidance and a potential hearing.
Some secondary violations should be public. Some major violations should not carry the same stigma as others. As the COI reiterates so often, every violation is different. Those differences should be recognized by eliminating categories and the need to place violations in those categories.
These reforms will be discussed at the presidential retreat. Hopefully we’ll see legislation moving some agenda, either this one or another, next year. Mr. Slive has presented a comprehensive agenda where financial aid, recruiting, and academics are all tied together. To reform a rule book as large and interconnected as the Division I Manual, this is the type of comprehensive thinking that is needed.
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.