Time Demands on College Athletes Is A Continual Problem

There is probably no more significant roadblock for college athletes seeking meaningful educations than the unreasonable amounts of time they must engage in practice and other athletics-related activities. If receiving a “world class education,” which is often espoused the by NCAA as the promise and most important aspect of college sports, then a complete revision and reprioritization of time demands on college athlete’s needs to be undertaken.

In a somewhat positive and recent move, the NCAA and several athletic conferences have finally at least started to discuss and recognize that this is a serious issue. Welcome to the party I guess but what took so long as there has been significant research and evidence that one of the main roadblocks to an effective academic experience is the time one must spend on their sport in relation to academic and other social activities? As the report states even the NCAAs own research backs this up, “In every NCAA and conference survey and through numerous research studies, athletes have made their concerns and needs concerning time spent on their sports known. Excessive athletics time demands are interfering with sleep, prohibiting recovery from injury and strenuous exercise sessions, increasing the dangers of concussion, inducing stress that affects mental health, and greatly interfering with academic responsibilities and choice of major.”

College athletes, like other full-time students, are typically expected to devote 45 to 60 hours per week to their academic responsibilities. Yet, NCAA 2015 research demonstrates that the median numbers of hours per week spent on academics by athletes in all competitive divisions ranged from 38.5 in Division I to 40.5 in Division III, and the median number of hours spent on athletics ranged from 34 in Division I to 28.5 in Division III. PAC 12 conference surveys report athletes in all sports averaging 50 hours per week spent on athletics activity. This is unacceptable in a culture where the term “student-athlete” is ubiquitous and constantly stated aloud to make everyone believe that academics and academic integrity matter.

Link to the Group’s full position paper.

Health and welfare issues are also paramount and a major reason why time demands need to be significantly overhauled and changed. Concussion concerns are escalating, and athletes’ exposure to such risks increases with more time spent in practice and competition. Academically coaches and administrators pressure athletes not to schedule required classes or to pursue majors that conflict with athletics practice and competition commitments. The limit of 20 hours per week on athletics activity is not enforced, and athletes clearly state that there is no such thing as a “voluntary” practice.

Despite the NCAA and conference commissioners recognizing- albeit under pressure from athletes, impending lawsuits and potential government intervention, along with desperately trying to change the narrative of the athlete being an employee, the Big Five Autonomy Conferences’ recent “Flex 21″ proposed rules changes (questionably applauded by the Knight Commission) are woefully inadequate and continue to mask the larger problem. Simply put this is overcomplicating the issue by trying to develop ways to give athletes more time but still at the whims of the institution and/or coach with many loopholes that can still be abused by the ones in charge. Giving an athlete more time off to devote to academics and other pursuits is a rather simple process rather than trying to create a literal time card that seems to mirror punching the clock to go on and off work than actual needed time away from athletic responsibilities.

This proposed approach by the Big Five conferences reflects the inability of institutions with commercialized football and basketball programs to recognize the conflict of interest that exists between protecting revenue production and multi-million dollar coaches’ salaries while attempting to balance the most important issue–which is the health and academic well-being of college athletes. The Drake Group report, authored by some of the foremost experts in intercollegiate athletic reform and governance, presents eight achievable and measurable recommendations to adequately confront the time demands issue as opposed to simply masking the issue.

A Change We Can All Believe In

Overall the Drake Group proposal focuses on what everyone says is the main reason for college sports existing and that is allowing more time for academic, social, and other activities beyond athletic pursuits. The Drake Group believes that the almost absolute control of powerful coaches, the focus on winning and revenue generation, and the short shrift given to academics is too much and can be drastically altered to increase academic primacy for college athletics without affecting any game, sport or competitiveness.

As college students, college athletes should be learning critical life skills such as individual accountability and independence. The authority and control of coaches in many sports crosses the line of demarcation between the college athlete as a student and as a professional athlete employee. As stated in the report, “A reversal of time demands in favor of academic priorities and control by college athletes over their own rest, safety, study time, and social time is necessary or it will become even more disingenuous to call these athletes students.”

In brief the recommendations in the position paper are:

Recommendation #1-Revise the Definition of “Countable Athletically Related Activity” (CARA)

The definition of “countable athletically related activity” (CARA) should be expanded to include all commitments arranged, directed or supervised by the institution’s coaches or administrative staff members, including fundraising, promotional or community service activities, with the exception of things like treatment of athletic injuries, medical testing, academic study halls or tutoring sessions under the supervision of the provost or any academic units [not the athletic department]; community service activities required of all undergraduate students and not arranged bythe athletic department; game-day meals, which, if provided for home events, shall use on-campus facilities; athlete rules compliance and life skills education meetings (i.e., NCAA rules, drug/alcohol/sexual harassment, etc.); and travel to and from competitive events.

This recommendation is not as complicated as it might sound. It still allows significant time for practice activities but also many ancillary things that were not counted before and added to a much greater time commitment than 20 hours a week. Those loopholes are addressed in recommendation 2.

Recommendation #2 – Close Other Loopholes in “20-hours per Week” Limit

The current 20-hours-per-week limit, with no more than four hours per day of CARA, should be retained, but under the new definition proposed in Recommendation #1. However, the following loopholes or unreasonable time demands should be eliminated such as the current rule that counts an athletic competition as three hours against the 20- hours-per-week limit, regardless of the actual length of the contest, should be strengthened to include a prohibition against requiring athletes to report for a competition any earlier than two hours before the scheduled starting time for the event. Further, media and other traditional activities occurring at the conclusion of the event should not be permitted to extend past one hour following the end of the event. In addition, the practice of requiring players to stay in hotels prior to home games should be prohibited. Also, other than for the conclusion of competitions, should be prohibited during an eight-hour period between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

One major issue has been coaches using travel days as the current mandated one day per week off. The current requirement of one day off per week should be retained but the current practice of allowing that day to include competition travel as long as the day does not include a competition or practice should be eliminated. Current NCAA rules ( and specify that the four hours daily and 20 hours weekly CARA limitations do not apply during preseason practice prior to the first day of classes or the first scheduled contest, whichever is earlier, or to vacation periods and between terms. The rule should be changed to impose a five hours daily and 30 hours per week CARA limit during these time periods, retaining the one day off per week requirement but excluding things like arranged on-campus meals (which shall not include sport-specific activities); fitting of safety equipment and uniform; no more than one video session or non-physical activity meeting per day not to exceed 90 minutes. During such non academic periods, practices and required activities must occur on-campus.

Recommendation #3 – Mandate One Competition Free Academic Semester each Year and a Limited Practice and Playing Season

All sports should have one competition-free academic semester each year in order to give every college athlete an opportunity to focus on academic demands and to take advantage of academic experiences such as study abroad, internships, etc. This outcome should be accomplished by requiring all competitions and public scrimmages to occur within one academic semester (or two quarters within a quarter system), or when classes are not in session. Any voluntary practices outside a competitive season must be organized and run by the students themselves without any punitive measures against those not attending or taking formal attendance etc.

Recommendation #4 – Reduce Classes Missed Due to Athletic Competitions

In addition to current limits on the current NCAA maximum number of competitions that may occur in each sport and the prohibition of competitions during final examinations, athletic competitions can be further limited on any weekend (Friday through Sunday) within a competition season in which classes are in session where no more than three competitions or competition dates should be permitted and no more than one competition or competition date should be permitted on a weekday (Monday through Thursday). Other significant parts of this recommendation are discussed more in depth in the position paper.

Most notably, A committee of tenured faculty appointed by the faculty senate (or highest faculty governance body) should be responsible for approving the competition schedules for athletic teams. No team schedule should be approved if it results in the team missing more than the equivalent of ten full class days, excluding dates reserved for the possibility of post-season competition.

Recommendation #5 – Further Limit the Athletic Participation of College Athletes at Academic Risk

This is an absolute no brainer and it is recommended that a 10-hour per week CARA limit and the current NCAA prohibition against participation in competition travel should apply to any athlete who is academically ineligible to compete. Further, the current NCAA continuing eligibility standard that permits a college athlete to compete with a cumulative grade point average below 2.0 should be elevated to 2.0. The NCAA should also consider a year of freshmen or transfer ineligibility for any admitted student whose academic profile (high school GPA and SAT/ACT score) is more than one standard deviation below the average academic profile of their peer incoming class.

Recommendation #6 – Support College Athletes Electing Study Abroad and Internship Opportunities

There are many stories and research reports of athletes not being able to participate in academic opportunities that can further their employment qualifications following graduation. This recommendation should be enthusiastically supported by coaches because it alters the definition of NCAA eligibility. College athletes seeking educational experiences such as study abroad and internships, which are available to non-athlete students, should be supported through the adoption of athletic eligibility rules permitting an exception to the current requirement that athletes complete their four years of athletic eligibility within five years of initial enrollment. A pause in the five-year clock should be allowed for these purposes. The five year eligibility clock is paused for many reasons including military service and church missions, this is another great reason to the same.

Recommendation #7 – Athlete Time Demands Transparency and Notification

Very simple in that CARA must be accurately tracked and documented along with the athletes having an avenue outside of the athletic department to address any issues where new time demand restrictions are not being enforced or observed by administrators or coaches.

Recommendation 8. Transparency and Public Access to NCAA Research Data

The NCAA should adopt a policy that makes collected individual level data publicly available to researchers. Future NCAA studies should collect random samples of student-athletes and non-athletes within the same survey, which would enable such studies to address various topics that are major public health issues (e.g., substance use, sexual violence, and mental health). In particular, future surveys should explicitly oversample student athletes from multiple sports in order to assess the unique differences across different types of student-athletes (e.g., football versus track) when compared to students who do not participate in collegiate sports.

This is Actually What We Want

In my view, none of these proposals should even be remotely controversial. If enacted, these proposals would insure, certainly much more than currently is done, that the athlete is actually a student and academic primacy is first and foremost on our college campuses. This is supposedly what everyone wants. Even television executives have said we need more rules regarding academics and keeping college athletes as students to keep the product marketable. While I disagree to an extent with that proclamation, it is puzzling to ponder why it has become so complicated to do the right thing when that is what college athletics is supposed to be about.

The pushback will come from coaches and others who believe that competitiveness will suffer from fewer hours being spent on athletic activity but I feel we need to draw a line in the sand here. It is either academics are the most important aspect or they are not. Once that is decided we can have actual college students playing college sports who have a chance to succeed academically and later in life. If less than 2% make it to the big money professional leagues, it is not only the least we can do, it is something we must do. As I always say, we will still watch the games and enacting proposals like this would be largely transparent to the fans. It is a paradigm shift but we are at a point where we need to go to a place where college athletics should be or we should stop pretending and just make it a professional auxiliary attached to higher education. We have a choice, we just have to make it.

B. David Ridpath, Ed.D. is the Kahandas Nandola Professor of Sports Business at Ohio University in the Department of Sports Administration in Athens, Ohio. Follow him on twitter @drridpath