Iffy Spring 'Break' for Football Players

University of Michigan's head coach scheduled a series of practices during a spring break trip to Florida, prompting outcry from those urging colleges to ease the time demands on athletes. Some say the controversy is overblown.

March 4, 2016
University of Michigan
University of Michigan football players practice in Florida during a spring break trip.

The University of Michigan’s football team is spending its spring break in Florida this week. While the players will devote some time to relaxing in the sun, their coach has promised, the focus of the trip is not recreation but football practice.

Last month Jim Harbaugh, Michigan’s head coach, announced that the team would have a week of spring practices at the IMG Academy, an athletic training institute and boarding school in Bradenton, Fla., and that the practices would coincide with the university’s spring break. The announcement drew widespread criticism from coaches and conference commissioners and will likely prompt new National Collegiate Athletic Association rules limiting spring break practices.

The Michigan trip comes at a time when NCAA leaders are seeking to lessen time demands for athletes, a goal that has already proven difficult to accomplish after several conferences decided to table discussing the issue at this year’s NCAA meeting.

“There is a big debate going on among administrators right now about how to provide more time off for student-athletes, so the use of spring break for practices caused a lot of people to be concerned about it, and that’s an appropriate concern,” Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, said in a meeting with the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees last month. “We are trying to find ways to dial back the demands on student-athletes, not ramp them up.”

The NCAA largely prohibits players from practicing during winter break and summer vacation and allows no more than eight hours of required training and workouts per week during the off-season. In the spring, the NCAA allows up to 15 practice sessions during a 34-day period, which can include intrasquad scrimmages and a spring game. Unlike summer and winter break, there are no NCAA rules specifically barring practice during spring break.

The issue is expected to come up for debate when the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee meets in April. Few -- if any -- other Football Bowl Subdivision football teams schedule official practices during spring break.

David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and an advocate for reforming college sports, said while he believes spring football and other off-season athletic requirements should be banned altogether, he thinks the controversy around the Michigan trip has been overblown.

"I think it is frankly jealousy because they did not think of it first," Ridpath said. "The NCAA is hypocritical, considering many March Madness teams miss weeks of school and no one is discussing banning that. Time demands for athletes are an issue, but this is not the problem."

The results of a national survey of 30,000 Division I athletes, released by the NCAA in January, found that many athletes want to spend less time on athletics. More than 40 percent of football and basketball players said they wanted an additional day off per week beyond the one they have now, and most athletes indicated they would appreciate two weeks off at the end of a season.

According to the ongoing GOALS study, football players in the Football Bowl Subdivision -- the association’s most competitive level -- report spending 42 hours per week on their sport, even though NCAA rules only allow students to participate in 20 hours of "countable athletically related activities" per week, or four hours per day. Two-thirds of Division I athletes reported spending as much or more time on athletics during the off-season as during the season. Nearly one in three FBS football players said their sport prevented them from enrolling in a course they wanted to take.

Complicating attempts to address the issue is that many athletes choose to spend those extra hours practicing and training and are not necessarily being required to do so by coaches. In the 2015 GOALS study, more than 40 percent of male Division I athletes reported they would prefer to spend more time on athletics, not less.

Even so, Emmert, during his state of the association address at the group’s annual meeting in January, urged NCAA members to take action on the issue sooner rather than later. “This is the time now to match our actions with our values,” he said, calling for a “rebalancing” of how athletes spend their time. Proposals that would have lessened the time demands on athletes were scheduled for a vote at the meeting, but they were tabled until next year.

Several coaches and conference commissioners have criticized Harbaugh’s travel plans. Kirby Smart, head football coach at the University of Georgia, called the trip a “Pandora’s box,” and John Swofford, commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, said it “flies in the face of the whole national conversation of time demands.”

Bob Bowlsby, commissioner of the Big 12 Conference and chairman of the Football Oversight Committee, said that the trip was “inconsistent” with recent discussions to treat athletes more like traditional students. The Southeastern Conference went so far as to ask the NCAA to intervene and prevent the trip from happening, saying the practices were “not appropriate.”

The University of Michigan and its athletics department declined to comment on the trip. This is not the first time Harbaugh's traveling has generated controversy for the university. During a 12-day stretch in Harbaugh's first month as head coach last year, Michigan spent $136,000 -- or more than $10,000 per day -- sending Harbaugh and his staff on recruiting trips.

Also last year, the SEC protested when Michigan organized several satellite camps for prospective athletes, including in southern parts of the country where the SEC heavily recruits players. The NCAA allowed for such recruiting camps, but some conferences, including the SEC at the time, did not.

There’s a potential recruiting benefit to Harbaugh’s spring break trip, as well: 12 of the country’s top 250 football recruits are currently training at the IMG Academy.

Harbaugh has defended the trip in news conferences and on his Twitter account, saying steps have been taken to ensure he does not interact with potential recruits at the academy. He said the trip is no different from when basketball teams travel to other countries during summer vacation. Outside of practice, the football team has also played some rounds of mini golf and watched the 2000 film Remember the Titans. For some of his players, Harbaugh has said, the trip may be the only way they can afford traveling for spring break.

“Question of the day,” Harbaugh tweeted after the SEC complained. “Does anyone find whining to be attractive? Just curious.”


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