NCAA to Consider Sweeping Changes in Athlete Aid and Eligibility Rules

Ned Dishman, Getty Images

Penn State and Alabama played last month before a sold-out crowd of more than 100,000 and a national television audience. The billion-dollar TV deals that high-profile programs attract, along with big pay packages for coaches, have helped fuel growing calls for paying athletes.
October 20, 2011

Major-college athletes could receive up to $2,000 a year more in institutional aid and be granted multiyear scholarships under a wide-ranging set of proposals to be presented to the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors next week.

Other ideas under consideration include the elimination of foreign travel and nontraditional-season competition, reductions in regular-season games, fewer scholarships for big-time football and men's and women's basketball teams, and stiffer eligibility standards for athletes, according to an NCAA document obtained by The Chronicle.

The proposals, some of which have yet to be finalized, are the result of months of discussion by several NCAA committees charged with overhauling rules to deal with widespread problems at the elite level of college sports.

Equity issues underlie much of the work of the groups, whose proposals could lead to major changes to the NCAA rule book and the penalties that programs face for stepping outside the lines.

Billion-dollar TV deals and multimillion-dollar compensation packages for coaches have led to growing calls for paying athletes. While Mark A. Emmert, the NCAA's president, refuses to go there, he supports the idea of giving athletes more money for travel and other incidentals, moving closer to covering their full cost of attendance. Median college costs at public universities exceed an athlete's scholarship coverage by about $4,000, according to a recent USA Today analysis.

A proposal by the Student-Athlete Well-Being Working Group, one of several groups formed following an NCAA presidential retreat in August, would permit a Division I athlete on full scholarship to receive up to $2,000 in additional institutional financial aid, should his or her conference agree to provide the money. Athletes on partial scholarship would receive prorated amounts, with both figures changing annually based on the rate of inflation.

"This won't eliminate things like players selling their memorabilia or finding other improper ways of getting money in their pockets, but we think it's the right thing to do and the fair thing to do," Graham B. Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University and the group's chair, said in an interview Thursday. "We're optimistic it will be adopted by the board."

He is also confident about his group's proposal to begin permitting multiyear aid agreements (colleges are now only allowed to offer one-year renewable awards). Some coaches don't renew players' scholarships because they're not performing as well athletically as the coaches had hoped, Mr. Spanier said, a practice that can reflect poorly on universities.

"If our real goal is to help students get degrees, we have to stand behind that" with multiyear aid, he said. "Once you make a commitment to an athlete, you should stick with that athlete if he or she is doing the best they can."

Under the proposal, colleges would still be allowed to cut scholarships for legitimate reasons, and students could appeal, as they do now, through an independent board.

Saving Money on Scholarships

With many athletic departments struggling to balance their budgets, several ideas from a working group focused on finances could make that easier. According to the NCAA document, the finance group has voted in favor of eliminating nontraditional-season competition, which can run up programs' travel bills, and supports a 10-percent reduction in regular-season competition for all sports. (If nontraditional-season competition is eliminated, the regular season would not be cut as much under the proposal.)

Among the finance group's other ideas, which have yet to be finalized, are to reduce the number of football scholarships for Football Bowl Championship teams from 85 to 80, cut football scholarships for Football Championship Series teams from 63 to 60, reduce men's basketball scholarships from 13 to 12, and cut women's basketball scholarships from 15 to 13, with those two awards being redistributed to other women's sports.

Rising tuition­—particularly for out-of-state students at public colleges—is a growing burden for many athletic departments, and the scholarship cuts could save programs hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. (Football and basketball teams with Academic Progress Rate scores above a certain as-yet-undetermined cutoff could maintain scholarships in those sports at their current levels.)

The finance group has also agreed in concept to a reduction in noncoaching positions—rapidly growing jobs that some critics see as less than essential. But people like Nick Saban, the Alabama coach who earns $4-plus-million a year, escaped the committee's mention.

Several other preliminary proposals could make it more difficult for academically unprepared athletes to take the field their first year. The Committee on Academic Performance is considering proposals that would raise the minimum high-school core grade-point average and SAT/ACT score needed for freshman eligibility, among other new requirements. (Athletes would still be allowed to practice the full 20 hours a week and receive financial aid.)

A spokesman for the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics doesn't think that would go far enough to fix the academic problems in major-college programs. The N4A, as the association is informally known, is proposing that athletes who qualify for admission but score lower than the 25th percentile in reading or critical reading on standardized tests be restricted to 10 hours of practice a week their first year in college, while still receiving aid.

"Raising the GPA will simply increase grade inflation," says Gerald S. Gurney, an assistant professor of adult and higher education and the former head of academic services for athletes at the University of Oklahoma. "The NCAA needs to address the biggest problem—reading deficiency."

Aside from the cost-of-attendance and multiyear aid proposals, it's unclear how many of the ideas will be presented at the NCAA Division I board meeting next week. Still, some college leaders say they've never seen the NCAA move this quickly.

"Coming out of the presidential summit in August, I said I thought we would see more change in the NCAA this year than at any time in history," Mr. Spanier said. "We are indeed delivering on that promise."