'A True Day Off'

NCAA's Power Five conferences unanimously adopt new rules lessening time demands on college athletes, though some programs would like to see exemptions made for recruiting activities.

January 23, 2017
Mark Emmert, the NCAA's president, waits to give his state of the association address.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Legislation designed to lessen the time demands on college athletes in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s wealthiest conferences was easily adopted at the NCAA’s annual meeting here Friday. But before the proposals were voted on, the division's student representatives already found themselves fighting off attempts to allow athletically related activities on their new day off.

The Power Five leagues -- which include the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the Southeastern Conference -- unanimously voted to adopt new rules that would give athletes one day off per week during a season, 14 days off at the end of a season and two days off per week during the off-season. Two amendments to the rules were also considered: one that would require athletes to attend “life skills activities” organized by the athletics department on some of those free days, and another that would allow participation in recruiting activities, such as hosting a prospective athlete.

“I hesitate to water down the proposal,” said Ty Darlington, a former football player for the University of Oklahoma. “I think the base proposal is grounded in a true day off and the idea that student-athletes can do whatever they want with that time off. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s constructive or not constructive. There should be time in every week where a student-athlete can use that time as they see fit.”

The amendments would have been introduced largely without debate if not for outspoken athletes like Darlington. (“We’re here to discuss these proposals,” Eric Kaler, president of the University of Minnesota and chair of the Division I Board of Directors, said at one point. “Don’t be shy.”) This was the third year that athletes were allowed to debate and vote during such sessions.

Athletes were split on whether to require life skills activities, and that amendment ultimately was adopted with a 48-32 vote. Darlington warned the leagues that athletes would unanimously vote against allowing an exemption for recruiting activities -- an amendment proposed by the Big 12 Conference -- and 14 of the 15 athlete representatives voted against the proposal. That amendment did not pass, mustering just 12 votes in total, nearly all of them from Big 12 members.

The conferences also adopted a rule prohibiting required athletically related activities between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., as well as a rule specifying that institutions must develop a “time management plan” for each varsity sport. The plan would ensure that “athletes are provided with adequate notice of all countable athletically related activities.” Athletes in attendance spoke in support of the rule, saying it was common for coaches to give them just 30 minutes’ notice before an unscheduled athletically related activity.

The Power Five was scheduled to vote on similar legislation at last year’s meeting, but the proposals were tabled at the last moment, frustrating athletes and representatives of conferences such as the Pac-12, which had sponsored much of the legislation. Other leaders within the conferences said at the time they wanted to see more research on the issue before taking any action.

The NCAA’s own team of researchers had already been studying the issue during the previous year. According to those findings, football players in the Football Bowl Subdivision reported spending 42 hours per week on their sport during the season. 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.

Last year, the NCAA commissioned another survey focused on time demands in response to the Power Five’s concerns at last year’s meeting and a Division I Council meeting in February. That survey, which included responses from 50,000 Division I coaches and athletes, found that there was broad consensus on reducing time demands for college players, including requiring a minimum eight-hour overnight break and mandating a no-activity period at the end of a season.

“I am very pleased with today's actions,” Larry Scott, commissioner of the Pac-12, said in a statement. “College represents a period of major personal growth and opportunity for our students, and as athletic administrators, it is incumbent on us that they have the necessary time and the flexibility to take full advantage of everything our universities have to offer.”

During his state of the association address on Thursday, Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, also encouraged the Power Five to adopt the new rules, calling the legislation “a very good starting place.” He made a similar argument in favor of lessening time demands for athletes at last year’s meeting.

While much of the time demand legislation was met with little debate on Friday, one proposal proved contentious: a rule banning spring break training trips like the University of Michigan’s controversial week of spring practices at the IMG Academy in Florida last year. The NCAA 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 were no NCAA rules specifically barring practice during spring break. Colleges, for the most part, have avoided scheduling such practices, however.

Several coaches and conference commissioners criticized Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s travel plans at the time. Bob Bowlsby, commissioner of the Big 12 Conference and chairman of the Football Oversight Committee, said 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.”

At Friday’s meeting, former Northwestern University women’s soccer player Nandi Mehta argued against the proposal, saying the rule would limit travel opportunities for athletes, many of whom may not have other means of traveling on such trips. In return, Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, stressed that the rule does not prevent teams from taking spring break trips, only those that involve practices. “The football team could still use spring break for a lot of valuable experiences” without putting on helmets and pads, Sankey said.

The ban on spring break practices was adopted by a 58-22 vote. Eleven of the 15 athlete representatives voted against the proposal. Warde Manuel, Michigan’s athletics director, suggested that the new rule had less to do with time demand concerns and more to do with preventing colleges like Michigan from expanding their reach into other conferences' territories.

“We already take away time that is valuable to our student-athletes,” Manuel said. “Christmas, Thanksgiving, summer tours -- that’s all during the break period when universities are closed. And yet we want to identify this particular period and say, ‘that is sacrosanct.’ If we really want to take this further, we should not allow any practice [during vacations]. We should look at the other break times that we take up time of our student-athletes. If we truly want to protect them, then let’s take it further and not just specify one point in time in the year.”


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