For NCAA, a Timely Gathering

It's been a wild year for the NCAA. At this week's national convention, Division I will be forced to modify or eliminate some of its reform initiatives, while Divisions II and III will look to ease recruiting regulations.

January 11, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- The National Collegiate Athletic Association meets every year at this time, but it's been a while since the gathering seemed as relevant as this one.

2011 was a brutal year for the association, with explosive scandals, rules violations by athletes and coaches alike, and all-around ire from the news media, college officials, the public and even members of Congress. NCAA President Mark Emmert himself admitted that crises of money, integrity and academic standards had reached a point where acting with “urgency” was essential. (Although he followed through with action, more than one of the reform measures pushed through in response were rebuked by colleges, and could be overturned in a matter of days.)

All that will be driving much of the discussion among officials at this week’s NCAA convention, getting under way today here on the association's home turf and culminating Saturday in votes on various pieces of legislation at all three division levels. But other issues will be on the table as well.

Here’s a look at what to expect from the NCAA’s 2012 annual convention.

Division I

The big item on the docket here will be the override votes for two pieces of legislation that the Division I Board of Directors hastily approved after the ideas emerged from Emmert’s retreat for university presidents in August. The board and Emmert touted the measures, which deal with athletics scholarship duration and amount, when they were adopted in October. But in the following weeks, dozens upon dozens of colleges registered their formal opposition to the legislation, ultimately putting them up for reconsideration -- and possible reversal -- this week.

The item facing the most opposition was a controversial one from the start. It allows conferences to permit institutions to award up to an additional $2,000 in aid to athletes, to help close the gap between what full athletics scholarships cover and what attending college actually costs. Depending on the institution, a fully covered athlete could still wind up $200 to $11,000 in the hole each year.

The colleges have four broad concerns: the rule’s unusually fast implementation, its potential impact on competitive equity, its implications for gender equity laws under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and “application of the allowance” for athletes in equivalency sports, which are limited by the NCAA in how much scholarship money they can award.

The rule was automatically suspended last month, when the number of colleges that opposed it hit 125. At its meeting Saturday, the board will either eliminate the rule, do nothing and allow Division I members to vote on whether to nix it themselves, or modify the proposal to satisfy the colleges.

A regulation allowing colleges to award scholarships for multiple years rather than a single year -- long urged by advocates for athletes -- faces the same possible fates, though it didn’t generate enough opposition to trigger the automatic suspension. The colleges that did appeal it were concerned about bidding wars over top recruits and the need to more heavily monitor teams to make sure they don’t overpromise aid. They also want to distribute athletic scholarships in the same way academic scholarships go out: annually.

Despite these efforts to overturn the reforms, Emmert has remained confident that the board can meet everyone’s needs and the legislation can remain in place.

Division II

Division II could significantly ease its restrictions on when and how often sports programs can use in-person and electronic forms of recruiting, if its members approve a series of proposals Saturday. Any of the 16 proposals will be passed if the majority of Division II institutions vote to approve them.

Currently, programs operate under different restrictions on timing and frequency regulating the various forms of contact. The rules were put in place out of respect for students’ time and privacy, but might give way to the legislation that’s up for a vote this week after two governance groups, the Division II Management Council and Presidents Council, decided that evolving technology warrants rules changes, and that easing the restrictions would put the athletes on a more level playing field with the non-athletes whom colleges are recruiting.

Rules in place now restrict in-person, off-campus contact between athletics programs and their prospects to three times per academic year, beginning the June 15 before a prospective player's senior year in high school. The proposed rule would not limit the frequency of such contact at all, and would allow it to begin one year earlier.

For e-mails and faxes, the permissible date for programs to begin contacting athletes would be pushed earlier, from Sept. 1 before an athlete’s junior year to June 15 of the same year. There are no current restrictions on the frequency of such messages, so nothing would change there. Telephone calls would also be allowed starting June 15 before the junior year, a year earlier than they are now, and the one-call-per-week limit would be removed. Programs can already use instant messages, text messages and message boards to their hearts’ content, but the legislation would allow them to do so beginning June 15 before the junior year, rather than the calendar day after the National Letter of Intent or other written commitment is signed, or a financial deposit is made.

Division II will also consider a number of proposals regarding conference membership. Among other things, they would: require new conferences to contain at least 10 active member institutions, effective Aug. 1, 2013; require conferences to have at least eight members effective Aug. 1, 2017, then at least 10 institutions effective Aug. 1, 2022; and allow the Management Council to limit the number of applicant conferences that could be invited to active membership.

Division III

The NCAA’s only division that does not offer athletic scholarships to its players will also consider proposals Saturday that would allow for more electronic contact between coaches and recruits. As in Division II, legislation will be approved if a majority of members institutions want it in place.

At this point, there are two proposals on the table that would lift the ban on text messaging as a recruiting tool, but one that includes social media is expected to be withdrawn because of worries it would be too intrusive for athletes. In proposing the legislation, Division III leaders said text messaging has become a communication crutch for students, who might not respond to e-mails or phone calls, and permitting it in recruiting would likely allow for more interaction, but this “wouldn’t be the communication on which relationships are built.” If the rule is approved, all forms of electronic communication would be subject to the same regulations: unlimited in quantity and timing.

Another proposal would prohibit voluntary strength and conditioning workouts one day a week during the off-season and on in-season off-days, but that proposal faces opposition from some of the division’s governance groups, including the Management Council; some have questioned whether the rule would be enforceable.

Athletes who suffer a season-ending injury would face a heavy penalty for practicing with the team during the season, if one piece of legislation passes: they would have to use a season of eligibility. But again, most governance groups oppose this proposal, in this case because it would apply only to a few athletes.


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