Verbal Commitments Challenged

Proposal banning early unofficial athletic scholarship offers among those to be considered at upcoming NCAA convention.
January 7, 2011

A proposal to prohibit early verbal scholarship offers — a controversial practice that permeates football and men’s basketball — is among the major pieces of legislation on the docket for next week’s National Collegiate Athletic Association convention in San Antonio.

The NCAA convention takes place annually and gathers officials from institutions and conferences in all three of the association's divisions. It is the culmination of the association's yearly legislative cycle, and it is where some— though not all — of its rules for players and institutions are decided by its membership.

This year's convention will mark the debut of the new NCAA president Mark Emmert, the former University of Washington president who took over the post last fall from the late Myles Brand. The convention will play host to the annual Scholarly Colloquium on Intercollegiate Athletics, whose topic this year is "Social Justice in Intercollegiate Sport: A Critical Examination of Racialized, Gendered and Disabled Bodies."

The major proposed rule change on the docket for this year's convention, introduced by the Division I Recruiting and Athletics Personnel Issues Cabinet last summer, would ban institutions from making verbal offers of athletic scholarships to high school students in all sports before the July 1 following their junior year. Further, institutions would have to have high school transcripts on file with the grades of their potential recruits’ first five semesters of high school before extending a verbal offer.

Some coaches of high-profile sports teams occasionally make verbal scholarship offers to potential recruits as early as the eighth grade. For example, last February, a 13-year-old quarterback verbally committed to play football at the University of Southern California. The prospect would most likely not be able to enter college until 2015.

To proponents of the rule change, coaches are making verbal scholarship offers to students who have not yet produced an academic record indicating their admissibility to a collegiate institution. This concern accounts for the date set by the rule change, explained Petrina Long, chair of the recruiting cabinet and senior associate athletics director at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“Tying it into academics was critical,” Long said in an article in The NCAA News last summer. “We felt that the fifth term is a point at which someone on your campus can evaluate whether that young person is on track for your particular institution’s academic entrance criteria. We thought it was a reasonable compromise.”

A compromise, that is, between those who would prefer to prohibit verbal offers entirely and those who would like the ability to make such offers. And while the proposed rule change has broad support, including from the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, it has two principal opponents: the Football and Women’s Basketball Issues Committees. (The Men’s Basketball Issues Committee supports it.)

The Football Issues Committee, according to its position statement, believes that the July 1 date mentioned in the proposed rule change does not align with the beginning of the time period in which football coaches are allowed to make contact with potential recruits. In other words, even though potential recruits could accept verbal scholarship offers as early as July 1 following their junior year, football coaches would have to wait until September 1 to make such offers, according to current rules.

The Women’s Basketball Committee would rather the rule change allow verbal offers following the sophomore year, instead of the junior year.

“The committee noted that prospective student-athletes in women's basketball typically begin to explore collegiate options the sophomore year and take unofficial visits during the summer after the sophomore year,” according to its position statement. “In addition, the prospective student-athlete will have completed two years of high school, which will give a good indication of academic progress. Such a modification would preserve the intent and rationale of the original proposal of addressing early recruiting concerns, particularly with sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth graders.”

Suggesting Summer School

A sweeping proposal that would require institutions to send academically deficient men’s basketball players to summer school is also among the most talked-about pieces of legislation the NCAA will consider at next week's convention.

The legislation, proposed last summer by the Division I Board of Directors and the recently formed Basketball Academic Enhancement Group, would mandate that institutions “assess” all incoming men’s basketball players, including transfers, who have accepted athletics scholarships “to identify those who require enrollment in summer school prior to initial full-time enrollment.” That assessment “shall be based on criteria defined by the institution and shall include an assessment of learning skills.” Further, institutions would have to re-evaluate all continuing scholarship players to identify those who “should be encouraged to enroll in summer school” again. Institutions that do not offer summer session classes would be exempt from this rule change.

More specifically, incoming basketball players required to take summer school would have to complete “a minimum of three credit hours of acceptable degree credit (other than physical education activity courses) toward any of the institution’s degree programs” in order to be eligible to play in their first semester. Upperclassman basketball players required to take summer school would have to complete “a minimum of six credit hours.”

Finally, the proposal would allow an institution to set aside eight weeks during the summer term during which basketball players in summer school are allowed to “engage in required weight-training, conditioning and skill-related instruction.” Such activity would be limited to a maximum of eight hours per week.

Men’s basketball teams typically have lower Academic Progress Rates, an NCAA-derived measure of student progress toward degree completion, than do most other teams. Acknowledging this traditional underperformance, the Division I Board of Directors argues in its stated rationale that “this proposal will provide opportunities for both academic and athletic improvement, which will, in turn, contribute to greater retention of student-athletes.”

Response to the proposal, though mainly positive, is rather nuanced. The NCAA's Academics Cabinet, composed of faculty athletics representatives from every Division I conference, takes issue with the original legislation’s requirement that incoming basketball players in summer school earn a minimum of three credit hours; it would like to see that floor increased to six credit hours. Though the Awards, Benefits, Expenses and Financial Aid Cabinet took no position on the proposal, it expressed concerns in its position statement that upperclass basketball players in summer school might not be able to “engage in summer athletics development activities” and “successfully complete a minimum of six credit hours,” from a time perspective, in order to be eligible to play during the next semester. The Championships/Sports Management Cabinet opposes the proposal and noted concern in its position statement about the impact the additional work would have on “support staff (e.g., trainers),” among other issues.

Bahamas Basketball and Hometown Hotels

Aside from these two major pieces of legislation, there are a few other minor proposals on the docket for next week’s NCAA convention that are also attracting attention from watchdogs of college athletics.

Conference USA and the Southeastern Conference submitted a proposal this summer that would allow “a qualifying regular-season multiple-team event” in basketball to take place in the Bahamas. Current NCAA rules limit such events to Canada, Mexico and the United States and its territories.

“Special events make a significant contribution to the growth and popularity of college basketball and provide opportunities for programs to compete in a tournament setting, often at neutral venues and frequently during vacation periods,” the conferences argue in their written rationale. “This proposal maintains the original intent of a qualifying regular-season multiple-team event by limiting participation to one team per conference and one appearance per institution every four years while allowing more student-athletes the opportunity to participate. The legislation would have no adverse impact on a student-athlete's academic responsibilities as the proposal does not increase the overall number of contests.”

Many regular-season basketball events already take place in a number of far-flung locations. For example, there is the Great Alaska Shootout, in Anchorage; the Maui Invitational Tournament, in Hawaii; the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, in San Juan; and the Cancún Challenge, in Mexico. Such events, however, are not without their critics, as they often keep students away from class for extended periods of time and can cost programs a great deal in travel expenses.

Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, told Inside Higher Ed that she is concerned not so much with where events like these can or cannot take place, but rather about the duration of the regular seasons of many college sports.

“Over the past few years, the basketball season has lengthened, and the commission has taken the position that ever-lengthening sports seasons take a toll on academics and drive up cost,” Perko said. “There’s certainly nothing wrong with providing athletes opportunities to go to somewhere different if it’s within budget. For instance, for an East Coast school, it might make sense to go to the Bahamas instead of Hawaii. The principle for the commission is not to get into which exotic places are more financially responsible but to look at this through the lens of the ever-lengthening season.”

There are proposals, however, that college athletics watchdogs like Perko are pleased to see under consideration by the NCAA.

For example, the Division I Championships/Sports Management Cabinet proposed a rule change this summer that would ban Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) institutions from providing lodging to football players the evening before a regular-season home game. This practice is widespread throughout big-time college football, and coaches cite numerous reasons for it, including that it keeps their players out of trouble and ensures that they are well rested before a home game.

“Precluding such lodging will result in a substantial cost savings,” the cabinet argues in its written rationale, noting a projected savings of $140,000 to $150,000 per year for a typical institution. “Institutions will no longer incur the lodging expenses, the cost of transporting the team to and from the hotel and venue, and other hotel related expenses for game day preparation, including the use of meeting rooms.”

No such proposal exists for Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), and Perko said she thinks she knows why.

“It may not be as commonplace with FCS institutions to host their teams in a hotel before a game, but once it becomes commonplace it’ll be too difficult to change,” Perko said. “That’s the reason why there’s not a proposal for FBS teams. It’s become too commonplace and too difficult to dial back. I believe FCS administrators are doing the right thing at the right time. It’s appropriate and responsible to provide limits on what should be allowed.”


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