In announcing to reporters that they had followed through on promises of speedy enactment of new rules regarding athlete welfare and academics, members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I Board of Directors weren’t shy about giving themselves props.
“This was an unprecedented meeting, and it was very, very positive,” said Judy Genshaft, chair of the board and president of the University of South Florida.
“It was, in short, one of the most aggressive and fullest agendas that the Board of Directors has ever faced,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert, saying its actions will have “profound impact, positive impact.”
"The board passed the three most significant initiatives in NCAA history that will ensure student academic success,” said Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance and president of the University of Hartford. “I believe that we’ll look back on today as a historical occasion.”
Not shy, to be sure. But not without some merit, either.
All of the items approved this week emerged from a retreat for university presidents  that Emmert called in August, with the goal of addressing some of the macro issues facing college sports. That quick turnaround was an unusual feat – and quite a change for an association that usually takes 12 to 18 months to get legislation passed.
And while some of the changes have already drawn skepticism from university presidents -- namely, the new rule that allows for up to an additional $2,000 in scholarship funds to help athletes cover cost-of-living expenses -- the higher requirements and focus on academic eligibility will probably meet less outright resistance.
Emmert had already announced  most of the initiative specifics at a meeting Monday of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which supported the general direction the NCAA is taking while saying it hasn’t gone far enough. (The commission also announced Wednesday that it has awarded six grants  to investigate various athletic policies and practices, such as spending, growth and oversight.)
But on Thursday, Emmert and others went into more detail about the changes aimed at helping Division I athletes succeed academically, one of which has proved particularly contentious.
- Scholarships: As expected, the NCAA will now allow institutions – if their athletic conference permits it -- to award additional athletic scholarship money to help fill the gap between what full athletic scholarships offer and the actual cost of attending college . Athletes can receive additional scholarship funds of up to $2,000 or the full cost of attendance, whichever is less. Depending on the institution, the gap ranges from $200 to nearly $11,000 per year, and is the result of miscellaneous costs incurred on top of the tuition and fees, room and board, and books that full athletic scholarships currently cover. The $2,000 limit will be in place for at least three years, the board said, but in the future will be adjusted according to the consumer price index. On Thursday, officials likened the NCAA’s approach to the athletic scholarship issue to standard college procedures whereby scholarships are adjusted depending on the needs of students. But critics have said that conferences with wealthier institutions -- i.e., those in the Bowl Championship Series -- will be at a financial, and possibly a recruiting, advantage.
The NCAA will now also allow institutions to award multiyear scholarships with a “prescribed minimum award value,” to prevent teams from dropping athletes if their performance isn’t up to snuff, and theoretically boosting graduation rates. Colleges will also be allowed to provide financial aid to former athletes who are no longer eligible for competition.
- Academic Progress: The newly raised 930 minimum Academic Progress Rate, which indicates that half the athletes on a given team are on track to graduate and which teams must meet to remain in good standing with the NCAA, will now be a crucial benchmark in football as well as the other sports: teams that don’t achieve the 930 score will be ineligible for postseason competition, in addition to facing financial penalties. Before Thursday’s meeting, bowl games were not subject to the ban on postseason play, which, if it were in place last year, would have eliminated seven basketball teams and eight football teams from postseason competition.
However, the clear-cut 930 ban won’t be fully in place until the 2015-16 academic year; to give teams time to adjust, the NCAA is phasing in the benchmark. For 24 months beginning in the next academic year, teams must make the current 900 APR each year, or a 930 average over the same time period, to be eligible for postseason play. In 2014-15, teams that don’t achieve a 930 four-year APR or a 940 average for the most recent two years will be ineligible. After that, it’s 930 or nothing. “This is a major jump,” Harrison said. “We think this is a tough but fair approach to having teams improving their academic performance, but allowing them to do so.”
Additionally, a new penalty structure for teams that miss the mark includes replacing four hours of weekly practice time with academic activities; reducing the number of games; and for the most severe cases, coaching suspensions, financial aid reductions and restricted NCAA membership, among other things. The structure includes some special exceptions for "low-resource" institutions and historically black colleges and universities, the board said.
- Eligibility: Under new rules beginning in August 2016, to be eligible for competition incoming freshmen must have a 2.3 grade point average in a set of high school core courses, up from 2.0, and the appropriate standardized test score on the NCAA’s sliding scale , which has been adjusted slightly to account for the new GPA minimum. However, under a new “academic redshirt year” model, students whose GPA falls between the old and new minimums will still be eligible to receive athletic scholarships and practice with the team in their first term of enrollment, and can practice in the next term as well as long as they pass nine semester or eight credit hours.
In an attempt to eliminate the “summer miracle,” as Emmert calls it, in which a high school student looking to earn an athletic scholarship packs all the required core courses into a summer or two before graduation, would-be college athletes must now complete 10 of the 16 required core courses prior to senior year. Seven of those must be English, math and science courses.
And beginning in August, community college transfers must have a minimum 2.5 grade point average, up from 2.0, to be eligible for competition, and those who didn’t meet that mark straight out of high school must complete a core curriculum including English, math and science courses.
The board also offered a glimpse into reforms still in the works. First is a “principle-based outcomes approach” to reshaping the Division I rules manual, for which a working group will give final recommendations to the board in April. Second, a second group in January will begin issuing recommendations to revamp the NCAA violation and penalty structures, with “pretty serious” penalties for the most serious violations, and more fast and transparent adjudication processes. The goal is to change the reward-risk calculation, to “make people who behaved badly wish they hadn’t,” said Ed Ray, chairman of the working group and president of Oregon State University. Those final recommendations will come at next year’s October board meeting.