A Different Kind of Autonomy

At NCAA convention, Division I will vote on giving medical staff "unchallengeable authority" in injury decisions and on lessening time commitments for athletics. Division II will weigh longer preseason for basketball, and Division III will debate more communication with recruits.

January 13, 2016

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s five wealthiest conferences will vote on whether to give team physicians and trainers “unchallengeable” authority in decisions involving injured athletes when the association meets in San Antonio this week.

In 2014, the NCAA granted the 65 members of the so-called Power Five conferences a new level of autonomy to vote on certain proposals without involving the rest of Division I. At last year’s meeting, the conferences used their new legislative powers to adopt a number of initiatives giving more support and benefits to college athletes, including a concussion and safety policy that many in the association felt was still too weak.

That concussion protocol was the most hotly contested piece of legislation at last year’s convention. Worried that the policy still allowed coaches too much freedom in decisions about when injured players were allowed to return to play, Ty Darlington, a football player at the University of Oklahoma, used the newly acquired voting power granted to athletes last year to ask that the proposal be referred to a committee, which would have tabled the legislation until this year. The motion failed -- though 32 of the 80 voting members voted in its favor -- and the proposal passed by a vote of 64 to 16.

At the time, Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, acknowledged that the proposal wasn’t as strong as he would like but urged the membership to vote for it, anyway. “I would much rather have an imperfect start than an imperfect pause,” Hainline said. Months before the meeting, in July 2014, Hainline announced that the NCAA's concussion guidelines supported the idea of giving "unchallengeable autonomous authority" to team medical professionals, but the guidelines are not set policy and have been criticized for lacking the teeth of formally adopted regulations.

Joining Darlington in defecting at last year's meeting were officials in the Big 12 Conference. In February, a month after the conference's attempt to thwart the autonomy proposal, Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12’s commissioner, announced that the conference had adopted its own concussion management policy that asserted “the unchallengeable authority of medical practitioners in overseeing the welfare of our student-athletes.”

The conference now wants the rest of the Power Five leagues to agree to the same rules, granting "autonomous authority" to team physicians and athletic trainers. Bob Burda, Big 12 spokesman, said the conference hopes the attention the issue of concussions in college sports has received in the past year will pressure other conferences to “take this next step.”

“We supported the proposal at last year’s convention, but we voted against it because we didn’t think it went far enough,” Burda said. “We said at the time that we would bring forward a proposal that would give medical practitioners complete authority in return-to-play decisions, so that’s what we’re doing. Because of the competitive nature of our contests, medical practitioners, not coaches, should make those decisions.”

The Power Five conferences will also vote this week on several proposals designed to lessen the time demands on athletes. One proposal, introduced by the Pac-12 Conference, would prohibit athletically related activities, other than competition, for a continuous eight-hour period between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Another proposal, also introduced by the Pac-12, would create a three-week “discretionary period” after the championship segment of a sport’s season, in which athletes can participate only in voluntary athletic activities and workouts. “The competition schedule often causes student-athletes to miss class and, in some instances, fall behind on class assignments,” the proposed legislation reads.

"Our focus is to make sure student-athletes have the time, support and independence necessary to participate in the full array of opportunities our universities have to offer," Larry Scott, Pac-12 commissioner, said. "While our student-athletes are some of the most competitive athletes in the world and it can be challenging to limit their practice and training time, we are committed to ensuring that they have a fully immersed educational experience and the time necessary to support their academic and other priorities."

The Pac-12 had also planned on introducing a proposal that would loosen rules on how athletes can use their names and likenesses. The NCAA’s current rules on the issue remain contentious and have been the subject of several lawsuits from former college athletes. The proposed legislation would have allowed an athlete to use his or her name, image and likeness to promote his or her own nonathletically related business, such as a dog-walking service or a music career.

On Tuesday, the conference announced that it was pulling the proposal in order to "review its implementation" and reintroduce it at a later date. In the meantime, the conference called on the NCAA to better advertise its existing waiver process for athletes hoping to use their name and likeness.

“In the interim, the NCAA has agreed to process waivers expeditiously and grant them consistent with the rationale behind our proposal and previously approved waivers,” the conference said in a statement. “A better publicized waiver process will deliver on the key principle behind our original legislation: that student-athletes should be afforded similar opportunities to their campus peers as it relates to entrepreneurial aspirations.”

Like the concussion policy, the proposals about time demands will likely have the support of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Committee members said they hope to demonstrate that their influence during last year’s meeting was not a fluke.

“This year our voice is stronger and more progressive than ever,” Kendall Spencer, a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico and chair of committee, said in a statement. “We hope to maintain this growth through continued support from our conferences and member schools.”

Divisions II and III

For the first time, athletes in Division II will also have a vote at this year’s meeting. Among the legislation that has the student committee’s support is a proposal to allow athletes participating in study abroad and foreign exchange programs to remain eligible for athletics and a proposal that would require strength and conditioning employees to be nationally certified.

Other Division II proposals include legislation that would allow basketball teams to begin preseason practice 15 days earlier than what is currently allowed and let teams have 30 days of countable athletic activity between that new start date, Oct. 1, and the team’s first regular season game. The proposal's supporters argue that expanding the length of the preseason would allow coaches to spread practices out over the full month, lessening time commitments.

The proposal was introduced by the Peach Belt Conference and the Great Midwest Athletic Conference, but it is widely opposed by Division II legislative committees.

In Division III, a proposal to deregulate electronic transmissions between recruits and institutions is also widely opposed. The legislation would allow “any form of electronically transmitted correspondence, including public or private communication through a social networking site” to be sent to a prospective athlete.


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