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Longtime observers of big-time college sports might have felt a vague sense of nostalgia Wednesday watching leaders of the National Collegiate Athletic Association talk about the group's just-completed retreat for Division I college presidents. While critics of college sports regularly suggest that there are major problems that need addressing, hearing campus leaders themselves acknowledge that need -- and cite a sense of urgency in fixing them -- felt a bit like the 1980s "reform movement" all over again.

"A lot of things have reached a boiling point," Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, said during a briefing after the retreat called by NCAA President Mark A. Emmert. "Presidents have reached a point where they've said, 'Too many things are not working well, and we need stronger actions from the top.' There's a unanimity of thinking of a very large number of presidents saying, 'We've reached a point where we must pay more attention to these academic issues, to these integrity issues.' "

Anyone who has paid a whit of attention to the governance of college sports knows that rhetoric about change flows regularly, but actual change comes slowly, and significant change sometimes doesn't come at all. But to listen to Emmert and several of the current university chiefs who stepped to the dais Wednesday to summarize the two-day, closed-door meeting, the presidents plan to fast-track a small set of rules changes that could alter the landscape of big-time college sports in meaningful ways.

Although details on the proposed changes are sparse, the presidents say they would seek to have the Division I Board of Directors enact rules that would:

  • Toughen the academic standards that freshman and transfer athletes must meet to be eligible to compete, and raise the Academic Progress Rate that teams must reach to stay in good standing with the NCAA. Emmert also suggested that the association could act to bar teams with poor academic performance from participating in its men's basketball tournament and other Division I championships -- an idea heralded by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
  • Give athletic conferences the flexibility to give athletes multiyear athletic scholarships (as opposed to single year grants) and to award athletically related financial aid equal to the full cost of attendance at their institutions.
  • Prune the NCAA's rulebook to eliminate "nuisance rules" and revamp the NCAA's penalty structure in ways that both enforce the rules more consistently and punish major rule breakers harshly.

"Presidents have been unequivocal about their interest in doing this with as much speed as we can while making thoughtful decisions," said Emmert, who added that many of the proposals under consideration had been discussed by various NCAA committees and bodies in recent months and years. The Division I Board of Directors, he said, which meets today, has "full authority ... to pass judgment about these things," and while he declined to characterize the situation as an "emergency," there is "clearly a strong sense of urgency."

Those proposed changes are likely to face opposition in certain quarters. Universities with less-wealthy athletics programs have traditionally opposed ideas (like the proposed increase in the value of an athletics scholarship) that they cannot afford and that could give wealthier programs a recruiting advantage, for instance. And increases in academic eligibility standards are often opposed by coaches and advocates for students from underprivileged backgrounds, though Emmert said any toughened requirements are likely to focus on grade-point averages rather than the standardized tests that the NCAA de-emphasized last decade in the face of legal challenges from minority athletes.

But asked why presidents might stand together now to push through the sorts of unpalatable reforms that might anger boosters and coaches and other important constituents, several presidents said they believed the integrity of college sports and, by extension, of their institutions was increasingly at stake.

"It's time for tough love in intercollegiate athletics," said Timothy P. White, president of the University of California at Riverside, who added that he was heartened by the presidents' discussions because "at the very center of it all is the best interests of our student-athletes."

While Emmert and the presidents spoke in general rather than specific terms about the ideas they planned to put forward, they did offer a few details. On the NCAA's process for enforcing its rules, which has been criticized both for emphasizing penny-ante violations (like too many text messages in the recruiting process) and for failing to deter academic fraud and other major breaches, Emmert said he envisioned a "model that defines infractions in multiple categories, rather than just two" (major and secondary), and has "something like sentencing guidelines," so certain violations could be punished with a "range of penalties that would be put in play," leading to "greater consistency in the perception" of how sports programs were treated.

On financial aid for athletes, Emmert said the association would probably look at a proposal that would "provide conferences with the ability to provide [an athletics scholarship] that went up to the full cost of attendance." He said presidents also expressed "significant interest in conferences having the opportunity to have multiyear scholarships," decided "not at the institutional level but at a conference-by-conference level." He conceded that any proposal would have to be crafted so that it didn't create "disproportionate competitive equity issues" -- meaning, in NCAA-speak, that it wouldn't favor wealthy programs over the rest.

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