ATLANTA – Education Secretary Arne Duncan pulled no punches in a high-profile address Thursday at the annual convention  of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, proposing a series of policy changes that he said could rid college sports of the “tiny minority” of bad actors that “stains” its reputation.
Duncan, former co-captain of Harvard University’s basketball team and first-team Academic All-American, criticized the high-stakes recruiting wars that take place in sports like men’s basketball and football. He wants further rules protecting young students from college recruiters.
“We now have universities signing eighth graders to their colleges,” Duncan said. “I’m not sure how an eighth grader who doesn’t yet know where they’re going to go to high school can accurately and thoughtfully and strategically pick the best college program. I think we should slow down a little bit, slow down and think about doing that maybe in the sophomore year. Signing students in the eighth and ninth grade belies any common sense."
Duncan slightly overstated the case; prospective athletes cannot formally commit to play at an institution in the eighth grade. In men's basketball , however, athletes as young as those in the seventh grade are now officially considered "prospective student-athletes" by the NCAA, and sometimes top young players are encouraged by institutions to agree to non-binding commitments during this stage.
Then, Duncan set his sights on a phenomenon that is outside of the NCAA’s control but still very much affects the world of college basketball. He called for the abolition of the so-called “one-and-done” rule – an NBA policy adopted in 2005 requiring that all of its players be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school before they can play. In recent years, this policy has led to a rash of top players leaving for the NBA after only one year in college.
“They’re not truly student-athletes,” Duncan said of these basketball players. “They’re simply passing through their institutions on the way to something else.”
Duncan was unclear on whether he would like to see the rule simply abandoned or changed by increasing the minimum age. He did, however, suggest that other college sports like baseball have found ways to accommodate players who are ready for professional leagues without college while encouraging others to stay enrolled longer.
Continuing to address concerns in basketball, Duncan told the large gathering that a fourth of the teams that participated in last year’s Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament had graduation rates less of than 40 percent. In addition, he noted that four teams had 0 percent of their black players graduate, while five had 100 percent of their players graduate.
“Somehow we have to level the playing field here,” Duncan said. “I propose … that if you don’t graduate X percent of your players – call it 40 percent as a starting point – that you’ll be ineligible for postseason competition. … Some folks might think that’s tough, but think about that. If you can’t graduate two out of five of your players, what are they doing at your university?”
Finally, Duncan suggested that the NCAA reward its coaches for their athletes’ excellent academic performance by allowing them the ability to spend more time with them.
“I know many coaches chafe at the restrictions out of season and their inability to work with their own players, and I’m actually very, very sympathetic to that. When you think about other students in the university setting, you don’t tell a budding computer scientist they can’t work in a computer lab. ... We don’t tell an aspiring violinist that he or she cannot work with the best of their faculty mentors and develop their skills year round. But, we tell coaches what they can’t do during the off-season. I think we do that because we have a low bar for coaches, we have low expectations. So, I’d like to flip that a little bit so that when you have good outcomes, have a good program, we should increase your contact with players during the off-season.… I can’t think of a better use of a coach’s time.”
After Duncan’s address, NCAA officials voiced their approval of the education secretary’s message, noting that they were already making progress on some of his suggestions.
“He made some interesting observations that we’ll want to consider in the months ahead,” said Jim Isch, interim president of the NCAA. “The real benefit was to sit down with him and talk about what we’re doing and what suggestions he might have.”
Duncan and NCAA officials also spoke of the search to replace Myles Brand, the former NCAA president who died last year  after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. Duncan told a group of reporters after his speech that the next president does not necessarily have to be a college president like Brand, but that he or she must have some of the same values as Brand.
NCAA officials speaking after Thursday’s association-wide meeting echoed a similar sentiment, adding that the next president will be named by the fall.
“There is a sense that Myles did do an excellent job as a former president,” said Ed Ray, chair of the NCAA Executive Committee and president of Oregon State University. “In some sense, maybe that’ll have some impact on presidents and chancellors to consider the possibility. But, from our standpoint, we’re not interested in pedigrees. We’re interested in values and getting the right person, someone with a kind of integrity and a dogged commitment to getting things done.”
Division I Adopts New Rules
Just prior to Duncan’s address to the entire membership of the NCAA, the Division I Legislative Council voted on its full slate of nearly 100 pieces of proposed legislation . Items can be approved, denied or sent back to the membership for further comment before a final vote is taken at the group’s next meeting in April. All approved items, however, must go before the Division I Board of Directors on Saturday before officially becoming a new rule.
Here is a brief list of some of the more notable decisions made by the Legislative Council on Thursday:
- A proposal to allow prospective athletes to play on professional teams as long as they are not paid was approved. Skiing, however, was added alongside men’s hockey to a list of sports to which this rule does not apply. Currently, prospective athletes who are not compensated themselves but still play alongside professionals lose their eligibility and cannot play in the NCAA.
- A proposal to further define the types of online courses that can be used by high school athletes to fulfill NCAA initial eligibility requirements was passed. Students and instructors in these courses, according to the change, must “have regular interaction with one another for purposes of teaching, evaluating and providing assistance to the student throughout the duration of the course.” NCAA officials noted this proposal was influenced by the increasing number of high school students taking online courses.
- A proposal limiting the number of credit hours of physical education to two that community college men’s basketball players may use to fulfill NCAA transfer eligibility requirements was approved.
- A proposal barring men’s basketball programs for employing individuals “associated with [a] prospective student-athlete” two years before and after the athlete in question is enrolled at college was passed. This measure is meant to counter the hiring of high school coaches and those of other travel basketball squads in order to entice recruits to attend certain colleges.
- A proposal stipulating that institutions may host sports camps or clinics for prospective athletes only within a 100-mile radius of their campuses was approved. This measure is meant to curb the practice of holding such camps far from campus for the purpose of recruiting certain athletes. Football was excluded from this proposal because a rule already exists prohibiting this practice.