In college sports governance we always seem to over complicate things. The old sayings of less is more and keep it simple stupid might just help us out in solving the daily and consistent issues that hang over the “amateur” games we love but we fail to do it virtually every time. For example-instead of seemingly redefining what an amateur actually is every day, which makes me think of the late Colonel Khaddafi always saying “you cross this line, ok you cross this line and just changing the definition etc., just accept that it doesn’t exist and define college athletes for what they are-which is at the very least a form of employee. They are at least to the level of a graduate assistant or other student worker and could be compensated as such. Then we can actually have a discussion of types of compensation (which they are already getting) and how much more if any they should be getting. While this even maybe over simplifies this issue, we certainly spend more time complicating things in intercollegiate athletics and making whatever situation much worse. The law of unintended consequences yet again.
The NCAA sometimes does get it right however and makes a very simple solution to what was once a complicated rule. The “extra food” issue is a great example of this. In the past, college athletes could not get any food provided by the athletic department, school, boosters etc. that was not already included in the athletic scholarship. Most athletic scholarships that covered board would either be a cash equivalent of what is allowed for a residence hall dweller on campus or a meal card typically worth three meals a day. I know three meals a day sounds really good and it certainly is, but when you are training daily and competing at a high level, penalizing a college athlete for an extra snack seemed petty and unnecessary and it was happening everyday. Compliance departments were filing extra benefit violations with the NCAA on a literal daily basis simply for extra food-I know because I used to do it and it sucked. Enter common sense from non-other than NCAA President Mark Emmert who called these restrictions “stupid” which followed approval in 2014 by the NCAA Legislative Council to allow athletes unlimited snacks and meals. It really does not have to be that hard to make a common sense decision.
Time Demands for College Athletes
It is time for some of that same common sense when it comes to athlete time demands, which in my view are way too much for a young man or woman that is supposed to be a student first. In the end, we will still watch even if we adjust some things in a common sense way that benefit the athlete educationally and physically. Still, there are many athletes that want to train even more than they do now and that can be their choice to do so on their own, however the amount of Countable Athletically Related Activities (CARA) allowed for college athletes in all sports need to be drastically reduced and better managed so the first priority of education gets the time it deserves. Changing the CARA as it stands now also can free up more time for college athletes to get the absolute needed practical experiences and internships that most any job or career require. For the athlete that just goes to class and has the rest of the schedule filled up with responsibilities for his or her sport, they will be at a competitive disadvantage in life. If the majority of college athletes go pro in something other than sports, then we need to adjust our thinking and priorities-plus it is not that complicated.
The Power 5 Has Spoken
The NCAA membership at its 2016 convention decided to table any action on addressing time demands but now there has been some action for athletes to gain some additional time away from their sports and also letting them have input into time demand issues. The revised approach from the Power 5 were officially proposed last week. According to USA Today, the NCAA and conferences under increasing pressure from athletes, the schools have been seeking a way to address time demands in an orderly, relatively uniform way that would not end up placing restrictions on elite athletes in sports – especially those in swimming and track and field – who believe their training must be virtually year-round. I understand this elite provision to an extent, but again that should be the choice of the athlete, if not the athlete can choose to train out of the educational space as many swimmers and track athletes have done in the past. If they want to stay in school, then other standards should apply. As I have always said-college sports should not be the only elite training outlet available for any athlete.
The Power 5 has proposed, along with Mid-American Conference’s schools that voted in September to adopt a similar set of rules changes, several potential enhancements to assist in expanding time away from athletic endeavors to focus more on academics and other things. These include some good ideas to ponder such as adopting the two-week, after-the-season time off period and an eight-hour period without activities after a team’s return from away games. The MAC schools also voted to require athletes who are out of season to have a week off with no athletics obligations at the beginning of each semester and to require that team practice schedules be shared with athletes on a weekly basis and that if changes are necessary, the changes must be known by the athletes 24 hours prior to the scheduled practice time.
The Power 5 proposals include similar proposals such as a prohibition on required athletically related activities, other than those related to competition, during a continuous eight-hour period between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. There also basically would be an continuous eight-hour ban on required activities after an athlete is released from team obligations after a home game that ends after 9 p.m., or upon a return to campus after 9 p.m. from an away or neutral-site game. This would effectively prevent coaches doing something like holding a practice immediately after a game or immediately after a team’s return from an away game if they are irritated at a performance. The change would not prevent athletes from receiving treatment for injuries during the eight-hour period. I am curious about late night or early morning practices that some coaches favor that enable the athlete to be freed up during the day. When I coached wrestling at Ohio University we started practice at 9:00 pm which in many ways I liked because there were no distractions, no missed class issues and to be frank-kept the kids off the streets which can get exciting around here at 9:00 pm or beyond. So I am not sure if that will factor in and for me the overriding issue should be enough time for academics and other activities which strict practice and other CARA times monitored rather than focusing on the specific times.
Other Power 5 ideas include prohibition on required athletically related activities for a seven-day period, beginning the day after a team’s last regular season or, as applicable, postseason game. In addition, schools would be required to give athletes an additional 14 days off during the regular academic year when classes are in session. Athletes would be able to use these days off during the regular season or outside the season. Currently, schools are required to give athletes one day off per week during the season, but a travel day can be used for that. Management of this system might be challenging and I suggest just giving set additional days off to meet this 14 day requirement.
An interesting and think pretty solid idea is schools would be required to develop an athlete time management plan for each varsity team under which athletes would be provided “adequate notice” of all of the team’s athletically related activities; schedules for all team activities are developed through “a collaborative process” that includes input from athletes; and athletes would be provided “adequate notice” of changes to previously established schedules for team activities. How this would work in practicality is the question, but having greater input from all does make the process more fair. Each team’s plan would have to be reviewed at the end of the year by the athletics director, the faculty athletics representative, the team’s head coach and at least one member of the team and ultimately be approved by the president or chancellor. This at least gives all input and puts the stamp of oversight and control somewhat out of the hands of coaches.
The Pac-12 has offered two additional proposals including requiring schools to give athletes one day off per week during a preseason practice period and during a vacation period when classes are not in session. One interesting proposal from the PAC-12 is schools would be barred from holding off-campus practices that are not related to an away or neutral-site game during a school vacation period that occurs outside a team’s regular playing season. This is in direct response to the spring football practices that Michigan held earlier this year in Florida. Honestly I am not sure if this is something that should be barred if it is on a vacation period and the students want to do it. Plus there can be some great social and learning opportunities not to mention that many swim teams and other sport teams do offsite training during vacation periods. So how would this affect them? Approval of these proposals, for the Power 5 at least but possibly throughout Division I, requires a combination of the 65 P5 schools and 15 athlete representatives made up of three from each of the five conferences. It is important to note that this will allow, but not force, all Division I schools to make these changes effective Aug. 1, 2017.
Some of these ideas are pretty good but again do not go far enough as they can. As The Drake Group has suggested, for in season sports there should be an absolute 25 hour a week limit on CARA that eliminates many of the loopholes in the current 20 hour week. The in season proposals mentioned by the Power 5 and MAC are pretty good but more can be done so the athlete is not overtaxed during the competitive season. For out of season activities and in the spirit of keeping it simple, what the NCAA can do is eliminate two semester sports (Yes that means adjusting the basketball season to one semester which is supported by many current coaches), abolish unneeded things like non-traditional seasons such as fall baseball and softball and yes even spring football, that actually free up time to be a student when a sport is out of season-for an entire academic term. Many of the ideas above are pretty decent, but the time outside the season needs to be addressed, including the summer because that is where real time poverty issues for college athletes can be addressed. While looking at time demands in season is not a bad thing, looking at other options that will allow students to better load up on classes that need to be taken during traditional practice times they might be prevented from in season along with freeing up more time for internships, practical opportunities, student clubs and other social activities is where more needs to be done. Instead of finding more time for CARA when the sport is not in season, we should be finding more time for the college athlete to be a student and it really is not that hard.
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.