It's Time for the NCAA to Get It Right

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle

January 08, 2012

The NCAA has experienced a tumultuous year and an erosion of public confidence in its ability to control intercollegiate athletics on many levels. Against a backdrop of public outcry and allegations of major rules violations and cover-ups, the NCAA's president, Mark Emmert, convened a presidential retreat last August to explore sweeping changes in college sports. A number of proposals that came out of that meeting were approved by the Division I Board of Directors this fall.

Those changes were intended to promote a collegiate model that makes the academic and athletics success of the student-athlete the paramount priority, while protecting the enduring values of higher education. But the NCAA membership has gathered enough override votes to jeopardize the future of some of these crucial changes. Now the Division I board is left with important decisions to make at the NCAA convention this week.

We offer here a few ideas for the board to consider that would more equitably compensate student-athletes for their efforts, free them from the control of their coaches, and improve players' opportunities to take better advantage of their college education. Most important, the board must focus on what is in the best interest of the modern student-athlete rather than on the corporate interests of the entertainment enterprise.

Require athletics scholarships to cover the complete cost of attendance. In October, the NCAA Board of Directors passed groundbreaking legislation allowing colleges to extend athletics scholarships up to $2,000 beyond the traditional limits of athletics-related aid, or the institution's complete cost of attendance, whichever is less. However, even though some colleges are balking at the expense involved, and the NCAA has suspended the new policy, we believe this either-or extension does not go far enough. The board should rework the legislation to require that full athletics grants-in-aid cover the complete cost of attending an institution, including transportation and miscellaneous expenses. The new requirement could be phased in over a number of years to give colleges time to adjust their budgets to accommodate the additional expenses. It's also possible that reductions in the salaries of coaches and administrators and in spending on sports facilities and accouterments may be necessary.

Keep athletics conferences out of cost-of-attendance decisions. Under the recently passed NCAA legislation, conferences may allow member institutions to be exempt from the cost-of-attendance extension of full athletics grants. However, as we said previously, that extension should be a requirement, and not a suggestion left to the discretion of an athletics conference. This is important for a couple of reasons: First, because the extension has been earned by the student-athletes, who commit to year-round strength-and-conditioning sessions and at least 20 hours per week in practice and meetings, and who risk injury and long hours in rehabilitation; and second, because federal financial-aid regulations already set the parameters of institutional aid for American college students. Student-athletes should be permitted to accept scholarships up to the full cost of attendance, just like other scholarship recipients.

Limit playing seasons to one semester. More important than merely increasing the actual value of a full athletics grant, the NCAA must reduce the athletics time commitment to allow athletes to be more fully engaged as students. The demands of competition and an extensive travel schedule mean that student-athletes often miss a large number of classes during the playing season. Limiting competitive play—basketball would be played in the spring semester only, for example—would give college athletes time to devote at least the off-season semester to the pursuit of a meaningful education. Limiting play to one season could also reduce team travel and other related costs of intercollegiate sports.

Eliminate the transfer penalty. Student-athletes from non-revenue-producing sports may use the NCAA's one-time transfer exception to compete immediately at another institution, but those from revenue-producing sports such as football and basketball cannot compete for one year after transferring. That's particularly unfair because although student-athletes often choose institutions based on coaches and style of play, their coaches are free to move to the highest-bidding institution. The only reason for the residency penalty is to protect the institutions' and coaches' investments in their talent. Student-athletes should have the same freedom to explore other institutional and academic options that their coaches do.

Tie financial-aid appeals to academics, not athletics. We applaud the NCAA Board of Directors' passage of legislation permitting institutions to offer student-athletes multiyear grants. By doing so, students and institutions can be committed to each other in a manner not seen since 1973, when four-year scholarships were replaced by one-year renewable grants. But athletically unsuccessful students (basically, recruiting mistakes) should be permitted to pursue their college education without fear of losing their financial aid. It is essential that nonrenewal appeals be rejected only for reasons of unsatisfactory academic performance or the student-athlete's personal decision to quit. Financial-aid committees should consider appeals from student-athletes as they would appeals from any other student, unhindered by the NCAA.

Don't reduce scholarships. The NCAA's Resource Allocation Working Group's recommended reduction of scholarships in football and women's basketball is misguided at its core, because it assumes that the loss of a relative handful of scholarships will affect the bottom lines of athletics departments around the country, and because it restricts opportunities for the student-athlete while ignoring the real issues: wasteful spending and misplaced priorities. Instead, the board should be reining in exorbitant paychecks to coaches, inflated athletics staffs, investments in opulent facilities, reliance on institutional subsidies and student fees, and other actions that threaten the sustainability of college athletics.

Big-time intercollegiate football and basketball are wildly successful commercial enterprises that win the attention of commercial entities, fans, students, and alumni. But as the financial aspects of college athletics have expanded, the focus on the student-athlete has been pushed aside. The NCAA's latest attempt at groundbreaking legislation was a thinly veiled attempt to protect its own financial interests over those of the student-athletes. The Board of Directors has a chance to get it right this week by crafting a modern collegiate sports model that includes a fair measure of freedom and equity for the student-athlete—with the emphasis on student. 

Christian S. Dennie is a lawyer and an adjunct professor at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law. Gerald S. Gurney is an assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma. He is a former president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics.