The NCAA is holding its annual convention this week. Yesterday, time demands on athletes surfaced as a major issue. College athletes must find ways to attend classes, complete their school work, and participate in the various training and practice sessions necessary to prepare for competition in their sports. The NCAA officially limits the amount of time that they can devote to “countable athletic activities” to 20 hours per week in season, and 8 hours per week out of season. This is known colloquially as the 20 hour rule.
Many who read this and recall their college days working part time jobs on or off campus, perhaps while also participating in some recurring extracurricular activities may wonder why it should be a big deal to ask college athletes to devote 20 hours per week to their sport? After all, you might say, they chose to play college sports and should have known of the rule when they signed up. And, anyway, they get their education for free in return.
Sure, but the—or rather, one—problem is, as Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney told the Indianapolis Star last May, that the “Twenty hour rule is a misnomer. NCAA studies have showed us over time that in Division III, it’s in the highs 30’s per week, Division II the low 40’s. In Division IA, it could be higher, probably in the mid-40’s.” That’s right, even in Division III, the actual amount of time athletes devote to their sports is nearly double the 20 hours allowed. In Division I it’s higher than what you’d have spent on your job during college, even if you were working full time.
Part of this occurs as a result of the ambiguity created by the NCAA’s phrase “countable athletically related activity” (incidentally, the NCAA seems, as much as anything, to be in the business of generating ambiguous phrases—”student-athlete”—that appear on the surface to clearly define something, while in fact creating a tremendous amount of maneuvering room for everyone involved but the athletes: National Collegiate Ambiguity Association?). When you look at the chart below, taken from the NCAA’s own document explaining the 20 hour rule, you see along the right hand all the activities that athletes have to devote to their sport that are not counted against the 20 hour rule.
Speaking anecdotally, the one that athletes I teach complain most frequently about (and this is across the board: male, female, revenue or non-revenue generating sports) is what the NCAA calls “voluntary weight training not conducted by a coach or staff member.” An athlete might receive word via e-mail or text from a coach or staff member or even a teammate, perhaps a team captain, that some of the guys are going to get together to life at 6 tomorrow morning, and do you want to come?
If you are an athlete, whose scholarship depends not only on your performance in practice and competition but also on the perception that you are a “team player” and “all-in,” do you really decide not to go that practice? Are you really making a free choice there in any meaningful sense of the word? Can we really call that a “voluntary” weight training or conditioning session? And that’s just one of the 13 categories of non-countable activities. It’s not hard to see how the number of hours per week gets up into the 30s and 40s.
Coaches, whose jobs depend on winning games and avoiding scandal, understandably want to find ways to get more out of their athletes. But in doing so, they sometimes, or apparently often, exploit the ambiguity in the 20 hour rule to coerce athletes into devoting far higher number of hours on their sport.
Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that athletes feel that they are “owned by the coach.” And, of course, that they don’t like it. The results of a recent survey conducted by the NCAA student-athlete advisory committee of more than 30,000 athletes are mixed, but they do indicate that many student athletes would like to see some form of reduction in the hours required of them: perhaps better enforcement of the 20 hour rules, perhaps a second day off per week (they are currently only entitled to one day off per week, and that “day off” is frequently filled with uncountable activities).
So it came as a surprise to me to read in yesterday’s USA Today article on the NCAA convention that President Mark Emmert explained that this was a “hard subject” because “these are very competitive young men and women.” As reporter Dan Wolken summed up Emmert’s concerns: “many athletes prefer not to be limited on the amount of time they can devote to training.”
Hmm. More ambiguity, now surrounding the word “many.” Which is it? Would “many athletes,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, like to have more time away from sports? Or would “many athletes,” as the NCAA seems to think, “prefer not to be limited on the amount of time they can devote to training.” We can go round on round on this. Perhaps the answer is both are true, and it depends on the athlete, the sport, their role on the team, their life experiences, opportunities for success outside athletics, and goals.
But here’s the part that really blows me away: since when does the NCAA take into account athlete’s preferences when formulating policies? Especially when formulating policies where those preferences (at least as interpreted by the NCAA) seem to run counter to what NCAA administrators profess to believe to be in the athlete’s best interests?
The NCAA doesn’t think it’s good for athletes to be paid for their labor. Okay. But “many athletes” do think they should be receiving compensation above and beyond cost of attendance. Does the NCAA therefore declare that the issue of payment is a hard one because, shucks, even though we don’t think it’s a good idea, these kids would like to get paid, and so, well, I guess we’ll have to go ahead and do that? So why are they waffling on the issue of time demands and professing that it’s because “many athletes” would rather not have time demands? Maybe it’s not hypocrisy, maybe it’s just bad thinking.
Update. The convention is over for this year.
But here are three more issues that the NCAA’s Power Five (the group of conferences—SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12—with the power to act autonomously from the NCAA) decided were complex to act on this year and therefore tabled:
- Allow athletes to profit off their own name, image and likeness, even if it’s for non-athletic ventures.
- Require schools to cover medical bills for sports-related injuries while an athlete is in school and for a period after college.
- Create enforcement rules and penalties for schools that violate their own concussion protocol.