GRAPEVINE, Texas -- The National Collegiate Athletic Association's massive rulebook is a little bit lighter now, with the Division I Board of Directors' approval Saturday of a series of regulations that allow for greater flexibility in recruiting.
The two dozen rules, effective Aug. 1, wipe out myriad restrictions on timing, methods and frequency of communication with recruits, potentially giving the upper hand to larger programs with manpower to spare and accelerating the already-intense athletics arms race. But that's to be expected under the NCAA's new guiding regulatory philosophy, which forgoes "competitive equity" (aimed at ensuring that no one program has an advantage over another) in favor of "fairness of competition." The former principle is the reason the rulebook has swelled to more than 400 pages, members of the group that recommended the proposals said here Friday at the annual NCAA convention.
When recruiting prospects, Division I programs will be permitted unlimited use of text messaging, social media (both of which were previously prohibited), telephone calls (previously limited to a certain number per week) and printed literature.
Greg Sankey, executive associate commissioner and chief operating officer of the Southeastern Conference, described the approach as "taking a step back and not worrying about things that, practically, can't be dealt with."
NCAA President Mark Emmert created the Rules Working Group as part of his reform agenda, which also includes revamping the enforcement structure and academic standards for athletes. This group's members recommended the set of proposals to deregulate the rulebook in favor of regulations that are "meaningful, enforceable and supportive of student-athlete success."
In a news conference after the board meeting, Emmert said that a year ago, he "would have expected a knock-down, drag-out fight" over the shift away from an equity-based approach. But by Saturday, there was virtually no debate, he said; as NCAA members talked it over throughout recent months, it made more and more sense.
"You can't say [the University of Alabama] doesn't have a competitive advantage over a school that just started playing football 10 years ago," Emmert said. "We're not going to try and overcome those natural competitive advantages that people have, but when student-athletes step onto the field, they know the other team's got the same number of players, got the same number of coaches, got the same number of scholarships."
Only one proposal didn't make it through Saturday -- No. 13-2, which would have established a uniform start date for recruiting contact for all sports, but (consistent with the idea behind all the new rules) it will be up to individual colleges when to allow contact for each sport.
The board tabled that rule until April's meeting, where the working group will bring forward a modified proposal that will likely include three or four start dates for different sports, Emmert said, rather than one for all of them. The board, which comprises 18 college presidents, postponed the vote because some academics were concerned the flat date was too intrusive for high school students -- that they should be focused on their education, not on recruitment.
Currently, each sport has its own individualized recruiting calendars. Proposal 13-2 would have allowed off-campus contact with recruits beginning the first day of their junior year in high school and communication with recruits on or after July 1 after the completion of their sophomore year in high school.
At a Division I forum Friday, members of the working group presented their recommendations and sought feedback from those who were shut out of Saturday's closed meeting. Presidents, conference commissioners, athletics directors, faculty athletics representatives and athletes were largely supportive of the proposals, except for 13-2, which received some pushback.
"A one-size-fits-all approach might not necessarily be best for all our sports," said Noreen Morris, commissioner of the Northeast Conference and chair of the Division I leadership council. "Why put forward a proposal that may not have a consensus, that might then go into an override discussion ... and put a negative spin on the package in general?"
(The rule that generated the most discussion at last year's convention -- which would have allowed conferences to permit colleges to offer $2,000 stipends to athletes to help cover the cost of attendance -- was automatically suspended after more than 160 institutions submitted override requests. Working group members mentioned the stipend at Friday's forum, noting that it's still in limbo.)
The working group had argued that under previous rules -- which for some sports didn't allow contact until July 1 after the student's senior year in high school -- athletes and coaches didn't have enough time to form proper relationships and get families all the information they needed to make a decision.
Athletes who were in town to receive the NCAA's Top 10 Awards, which honor students who graduated a year ago and were successful athletically and academically, agreed. They said they would have liked fewer restrictions on communication and more time to interact with different programs before committing.
"It would have been nice to just know my options," said Miles Batty, a cross country and track and field athlete who attended Brigham Young University. Under NCAA rules, colleges couldn't recruit Batty until the July before his senior year of high school -- just a couple of months before signing day.
Athletes also spoke in favor of two other proposals that eliminate restrictions on methods and modes of communication during recruiting (13-3) and restrictions on sending printed recruiting material to prospects (13-5-A).
Wendy Trott, a University of Georgia graduate who was on the swimming and diving team, said she was often confused about she what was or wasn't allowed to do when communicating with athletics programs.
"Anything that makes it simpler or easier to understand" is a plus, she said.
Emmert said Saturday that athlete input was "profoundly important." What with their common sense and experience, Emmert joked, perhaps the NCAA should just have them write the rulebook themselves.
Regardless of who does the rulemaking in the future, they'll have to honor a new commitment to "fair competition." Proposal 2-1 codifies that new approach; it "acknowledges that variability will exist among members in advantages, including facilities, geographic location and resources and that such variability should not be justification for future legislation." (2-1 also includes commitments to "diversity and inclusion.")
Sankey said Friday, "We're talking about fair competition, but we're also talking about realities."
The key is that all athletes are held to the same standards, which the revised rulebook achieves, said Curtis Schickner, an athlete who competes at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and was a member of the working group.
"We may not have the same caliber of talent or facilities, but when we go there every day, do we have the same ability to win?" he asked. "I think that's what's most important to student-athletes."
Looking forward, when considering new rules, membership should consider the following, said Brian Shannon, faculty athletics rep at Texas Tech University and president of the Division I-A FAR group: "Does this proposed rule advance one of the commitments? Does it support one of the commitments? If not, why are we looking at it?"
Asked what Saturday's vote meant for his reform agenda, Emmert said, "it's huge."
"It is a singular accomplishment in Division I when they can make changes that set a completely new tone for rules, how rules can be made, and what the philosophical underpinning of those rules is," he said. "This is a movement toward greater responsibility at the institutional level, that will allow them more flexibility and will focus the rules on those things that are real threats to the integrity of sport -- away from things that are mostly annoying."
A complete list of the new legislation can be found here.
Divisions II, III consider legislation
Division II approved parts of its own "ease of burden" package. While it defeated a proposal that would have eased rules on official and unofficial campus visits, Division II approved two others. One specifies that for students who aren't yet enrolled in college, their amateur status will be jeopardized only by receiving a benefit from an agent or entering into an agreement with an agent. The other rule specifies that prospects may try out for a sport beginning June 15 before their junior year in high school, as long as the student has either completed high school eligibility in the sport or their sport's season is not under way.
Division III passed a rule Saturday allowing coaches to use social media to communicate privately when recruiting prospects. Divisions I and II already allowed it.
After a 45-minute debate, Division III also passed a controversial rule requiring colleges to test and confirm athletes for sickle cell trait, a genetic condition in which red blood cells can become deformed and cause health problems. Next year, all incoming freshmen will be tested; the year after, testing will expand to cover all athletes. Some critics urged against the proposal, saying it was medically unsubstantiated.