Skin in the Game

I’m generally dismissive of anyone who claims one bylaw will change everything in college athletics, just like I’m generally dismissive of the idea that college athletics could be run on two rules, 10 commandments, or a rule book smaller than about 100 pages. Where college athletics to ever become professionalized, I would expect more rules rather than fewer.

That doesn’t mean rule changes cannot have an outsized effect. Twice I’ve listed small rule changes that would make a big difference to how college athletics is run, student-athlete welfare, or competitive equity. There is one other rule I would add. It is not small at all, but would (hopefully) radically change how colleges think about their athletics departments. First the bylaw, then the explanation:

Bylaw 20.9.1 Financial Commitment
A member institution or member conference shall hold in reserve an amount equal to the annual operating budget of the athletics department. Member institutions shall deposit funds into this reserve from dedicated tuition increases and student fees only.

Bylaw 20.9.1.1 Initial Commitment
At the end of the fiscal year following the adoption of this bylaw, member institutions and conferences shall deposit an amount equaling 20% of the athletics budget into the reserve fund. At the end of the second, third, and fourth fiscal year, the institution or conference shall also deposit 20% of the athletics budget into the reserve fund. At the end of the fifth year, institutions and conferences shall come into full compliance with the bylaw.

Bylaw 20.9.1.2 Institutions Reclassifying to Division I
An institution’s application to reclassify to Division I will not be considered unless it has in reserve an amount equal to the athletics department’s projected budget for the institution’s first year in Division I.

The problem is that while many stakeholders are becoming increasingly certain of the importance of college athletics (particularly college football and men’s basketball), at the same time another group with some overlap is becoming increasingly certain that colleges should not pay for their athletics programs. As a result, we have louder and louder cries for a new NCAA division or a new association altogether composed of just schools that can generate enough revenue to pay for their athletics departments without institutional subsidy.

That idea belittles college athletics and undermines many arguments of pay-for-play proponents. It assumes that college athletics is either so insignificant or so far from the university’s mission that it is wrong for a university to decide to invest in intercollegiate athletics. If we assume institutions should not pay for athletics, then whether institutions should have athletics departments at all is a legitimate question.

Granted, not all decisions to provide institutional support to athletics are equal. There is a difference between a bare majority of trustees voting for a tuition increase for athletics and students voting to raise fees on themselves to support the athletics department. But there’s also a cost to the institution in allowing or requiring athletics to be self-sufficient, namely the loss of control that comes from not having the purse strings in hand.

There are two other advantages to linking an athletics department’s budget to the willingness of the institution to put up its own money. First, it means that athletics departments become much more like any other university department when it comes to budgeting. Having a $100 million athletics department would mean there is $100 million in an account. If the university is facing financial difficulties, it is much easier to ask the athletics department to share in the hardship, even if athletics is totally self-sufficient. All the university needs to do is withdraw money from the account.

Second, it puts something of a break on the expansion of athletics budgets. If a conference signs a big new TV contact, institutions cannot use the money unless they are willing to raise tuition or student fees to add to the reserve account. The interest or returns on the reserve fund operate as a normal, annual increase in funding for the athletics department. And if the athletics department is bringing in more revenue than the reserve fund allows them to spend, that money could go back to the institution or saved for a rainy day.

How athletics departments are funded is one of the biggest reasons why athletics seems to be drifting further from the university’s core mission. Part of this is because universities, by and large, operate the athletics department they are able to afford, especially if the athletics department is doing most or all of the funding. Requiring the university and students to put up their own money will hopefully create athletics departments that universities are willing and able to fund.

About John Infante

The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office. If you’re a coach, do not attempt to contact the author looking for a second opinion. If you’re a parent, don’t attempt to contact the author looking for a first opinion. Compliance professionals are by their nature helpful people generally dedicated to getting to the truth. Coaches should have a bit of faith in their own, and parents should talk to one directly.

A Healthy Sibling Rivalry

The NCAA and NBA are finally having it out. After years of “will they or won’t they” and “are they or aren’t they,” the two most important organizations in American basketball are gearing up for a sustained fight. It’s a fight which if not diffused quickly could lead to radical changes in how basketball operates in this country and how players are developed. These changes will make many people unhappy. This post is about why I hope this fight is not diffused quickly.

The fight started with President Mark Emmert’s comments about the NBA’s 19 year-old age limit that requires basketball players to spend a year doing something:

“I happen to dislike the one-and-done rule enormously and wish it didn’t exist. I think it forces young men to go to college that have little or no interest in going to college.”

NBA Commissioner David Stern had a rather pointed response:

“A college could always not have players who are one and done. They could do that. They could actually require the players to go to classes. Or they could get the players to agree that they stay in school, and ask for the scholarship money back if they didn’t fulfill their promise. There’s all kinds of things that, if a bunch of people got together and really wanted to do it, instead of talk about it.”

Let’s quickly get one thing out of the way: both men are correct. There are a group of athletes who, but for the age limit, would be in the NBA. They are in college because they decided that college basketball was the best alternative. And the NCAA, conferences, or schools could adopt any number of policies designed to fight the effects of the one-and-done rule. But neither really addresses the other. You still have athletes who would rather not be in college and it is still not the NBA’s problem.

This fight is unlikely to go away because conventional wisdom says each group needs the other. Operating a U23 developmental league on the scale of Division I would be impossible for the NBA on its own. And if the NBA removed the best players from college basketball, interest would drop some amount. Both of these facts are true, but both are also irrelevant.

The NBA does not need to operate a developmental league at the same level of the NCAA, with full rosters of NBA-age players, additional facilities, and another administrative staff. The NBA simply needs to operate cheaper youth teams (at least two, one for high school freshmen and sophomores and one for juniors and seniors) and expand rosters using development slots at below the current minimum salary to make teams large enough to support a reserve league. Youth and reserve teams would leverage existing infrastructure, drastically cutting development expenses. Broadcast partners and sponsors, especially shoe companies, might pay for the entire project.

There’s also not great evidence that college athletics needs a steady supply of would be pros to be popular. College baseball has reached record levels of revenue and popularity at the same time MLB clubs were throwing so much money at kids to not go to school that it became the central issue in the new collective bargaining agreement. The same goes for college soccer, which continues to grow despite MLS shifting money to its own developmental system.

If this were the end of it, the answer would be simple. One quick meeting between Emmert and Stern and aside from fending off the conspiracy theorists, the issue would be settled. The outcome would be a different type of early entry system, one that used all or parts of the MLB, NHL, and MLS systems. But this needs to be a knockdown, ugly drag out fight because of something the two men agree on. First President Emmert:

“If you want to become a professional athlete, there’s no better place to go generally than to come to one of our schools to develop your skills and abilities.”

And Commissioner Stern:

“For our business purposes, the longer we can get to look at young men playing against first-rate competition, that’s a good thing.”

Both make the assumption that college athletics is the best way to develop and evaluate future professional athletes. I can concede that it is the best system in existence in the United States at the moment. But the best possible? Far from it. At the risk of beating a dead horse, developing future pros is not a high priority of the NCAA. If you look at the NCAA’s rules, it’s much easier to conclude that the rules are designed to prevent athletes from becoming professional athletes rather than to help them. Some examples:

  • Athletes are limited to a maximum of 20 hours per week of training. But during the season, that 20 hours has to include games, each of which cuts into training by 3 hours.
  • During the offseason, athletes are limited to just eight hours of training. Skill instruction is further limited to just two hours of those eight. For long portions of the year, no training can be required at all.
  • Athletes are generally prohibited from even requesting additional skill instruction because of the way the NCAA has defined voluntary activities.
  • Athletes are required to pursue an academic career parallel to their athletic one, which takes away from the time and energy they can devote to improving.
  • Staffing and recruiting limits make evaluation and selection of athletes with the most potential to be pros more difficult.
  • The NCAA operates (or allows to operate) national championships that become the primary focus of a coach’s job, rather than developing future professional athletes.

All of which makes it curious that the NBA has chosen to outsource its development when an organization with completely different priorities is the best alternative. In fact, far from simply taking advantage of a free service, the NBA once looked to invest directly in the NCAA as a development system, according to Stern:

“Years ago I said to the NCAA, I’ve got a great idea. We’ll insure a select group of basketball players. And that will make them more likely to stay in school, because they won’t feel the loss of a big contract. We’ll designate a pool and those lucky enough to be drafted and make money will pay us back, and those that don’t, it’s our expense.”

That’s odd immediately preceding a quote where Stern says he is not concerned with the NCAA and that NBA rules are not “social programs.” But even stranger is that the NBA was willing to pour money, maybe millions of dollars depending on the size and success of the program, into something it has no direct control over. The NBA is either happy with the quality of player it receives (which it isn’t because it is looking for more time to evaluate) or it likes the exposure players get by playing college basketball (which is odd given the animosity of NBA fans to college basketball and the fact that the NBA is the world leader in marketing individual athletes).

Neither explanation makes sense, so something else might be at work. My gut is that the NBA has in the NCAA a convenient set of excuses for why some players never pan out and some teams never make good decisions. This role of whipping boy is one the NCAA is increasingly unwilling to play. That especially applies to accusations about policies it has no role in drafting (like the NBA age limit) or that it ignores its own rules to protect income it doesn’t receive (like in the regulation of FBS football).

Thus the coming showdown. The war of words over whose “fault” the one-and-done “crisis” (both terms used loosely) is has already started. Both organizations have their next move in the works. The NBA and the union are studying the age limit with a possible move to 20 years-old and two years out of high school. The NCAA is mulling reductions in the number of basketball games and has already passed new initial eligibility requirements that may sideline for a year many of the players the NBA was looking to get extra time to evaluate.

If the current trend continues, the NCAA will increasingly move toward not being an acceptable alternative for the NBA’s purposes. At some point, the NBA would have to move toward a more active role in identifying potential pros at a younger age and investing directly in their development through youth and/or reserve league teams. Not to mention a mechanism to sign homegrown players that both provides an incentive for teams to take youth development seriously but still provides a degree of competitive balance.

And much to the chagrin of partisans in this debate, both the NBA and the NCAA will be fine. College basketball was fine in the prep-to-pros era and will be fine even with more athletes heading to the NBA directly from or even during high school. And the NBA will find it is better able to develop and market elite talents on its own rather than assuming college basketball will do it for them. The tie that binds the two together, the NBA draft, will still exist but it’s impact will be defined by how many players slip through the cracks in the new NBA system. But it will be of secondary importance rather than the be all, end all for many young basketball players.

One might look at all this and say it’s a lot to extrapolate from two press appearances. It is. One might say I’m blowing this out of proportion. I am. In fact, I’m deliberately trying to pick this fight because it needs to happen. Because until it happens, the sport cannot move forward.

About John Infante

The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office. If you’re a coach, do not attempt to contact the author looking for a second opinion. If you’re a parent, don’t attempt to contact the author looking for a first opinion. Compliance professionals are by their nature helpful people generally dedicated to getting to the truth. Coaches should have a bit of faith in their own, and parents should talk to one directly.

Bounties in the NCAA

“That’s how you do it” seems to be the general reaction to the NFL’s decision to suspend New Orleans Saints’ head coach Sean Payton for a year and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely following the league’s findings that players and coaches had engaged in a scheme to pay bounties for hard hits and injuries to opponents over a three year period. The harsh punishment and swift decisions have been contrasted with a major infractions investigation in the NCAA, which takes longer and has lead to penalties decried as ineffective or merely slaps on the wrist.

Ignore for a second the question of whether it would be better for the NCAA to replace its layers of governance with a single, all-powerful commissioner[1] who hands out penalties which can only be appealed to that same all-powerful commissioner and that the NFL’s investigation started back in 2010. What would happen if a college football team was found to be engaging in a similar bounty scheme? What are the possible violations and what might the penalties be?

For our purposes here, we’ll assume the same facts were found by the Committee on Infractions as the NFL found, which include:

  • Players and coaches pooled money that was paid out as bounties.
  • The head coach knew about and failed to stop the plan.
  • The general manager knew about and failed to stop the plan after being instructed by the owner.
  • Involved individuals lied to investigators.

In college, the general manager would be replaced with the athletic director, and the owner would be roughly equivalent to the university president.

Violations

Gambling (Bylaw 10.3)

The actual bounty program itself could be placed in the catch-all category of unethical conduct, but it is normally better to find a violation of a more specific bylaw. The NCAA defines gambling as risking something of value to win something of value. The athletes in this case risked something (money contributed to the pool) to win something (money awarded from the pool). The way the bounty scheme was set up is really no different than say golfers gambling on practice rounds.

Extra Benefits (Bylaw 16.11.2.1)

In addition to the athletes contributing money to the pool, a coach was putting in funds as well. That portion of the bounty pool would be considered an extra benefit to the athletes. It’s hard to say what the amount of extra benefits would be since we do not know how much each individual contributed. Payouts ranged from $1000 to over $4000, but would likely be less in college, probably between $200 and $500. On the other hand, the share of the bounty pool from coaches would likely be larger in college than in the NFL. Given a similar number of athletes (22–27) over a similar time frame (3 years), a reasonable estimate might be that a few athletes received extra benefits in the thousands of dollars while the majority would be in the hundreds of dollars but less than a grand. The total extra benefits might be in the $10–15,000 range.

Unethical Conduct (Bylaw 10.1)

Aside from the possibility that organizing the bounty pool would be considered an ethical conduct violation, individuals (including athletes and coaches) lied to investigators. In total, the following sections of the unethical conduct bylaw could apply:

  • (a) Refusal to furnish information relevant to an investigation of a possible violation of an NCAA regulation when requested to do so by the NCAA or the individual’s institution.
  • (b) Knowing involvement in offering or providing a prospective or an enrolled student-athlete an improper inducement or extra benefit or improper financial aid.
  • (d) Knowingly furnishing or knowingly influencing others to furnish the NCAA or the individuals’s institution false or misleading information concerning an individual’s involvement in or knowledge of matters relevant to a possible violation of an NCAA regulation.

Failure to Promote an Atmosphere of Compliance (Bylaw 11.1.2.1)

At the point where the head coach learned about the violation, he would have had an obligation under NCAA rules to stop it from occurring and ensure it was reported at dealt with. But as the NFL found:

 Although [the head coach] was not a direct participant in the funding or administration of the program, he was aware of the allegations, did not make any detailed inquiry or otherwise seek to learn the facts, and failed to stop the bounty program. He never instructed his assistant coaches or players that a bounty program was improper and could not continue.

That would certainly violate both the responsibility to promote an atmosphere of compliance and the responsibility of a head coach to monitor his program and the people who report to him.

Lack of Institutional Control (Constitution 2.1.1)

Not only did the head coach fail to investigate or stop the bounty program but imagine if this appeared in an infractions report:

 When informed earlier this year of the new information, [the university president] advised the [enforcement] staff that he had directed his [athletic director] to ensure that any bounty program be discontinued immediately. The evidence showed that [the athletic director] did not carry out [the president’s] directions. Similarly, when the initial allegations were discussed with [the athletic director] in 2010, he denied any knowledge of a bounty program and pledged that he would ensure that no such program was in place. There is no evidence that [the athletic director] took any effective action to stop these practices.

The lack of any action at all, even in response to an order from the institutional CEO on a matter as serious as athlete safety would go beyond a failure to monitor. It would be evidence of a lack of any system to control the athletics department, hence a lack of institutional control.

Penalties

Judging penalties is always difficult, but we can get in the ballpark at least. The biggest variable is to what degree the fact that the violations deal with athlete safety is treated as an aggravating factor. The case that comes the closest is the Baylor case, which would make a bounty scheme one of the worst violations with some of the most severe penalties in NCAA history. Even without that consideration, this is still one of the most serious cases ever, involving gambling, the possibility of significant extra benefits, and a lack of institutional control. Let’s look at the penalties for the athletes, the coaches and administrators, and the institution.

Student-Athlete Reinstatement

Sports wagering is one of the few bylaws that has a penalty written into the manual:

A student-athlete who participates in activities designed to influence the outcome of any intercollegiate contest or in an effort to affect win-loss margins (“point shaving”) or who participates in any sports wagering activity involving the student-athlete’s institution shall permanently lose all remaining regular-season and postseason eligibility in all sports. (emphasis added)

Just for being involved in sports wagering at all, student-athletes are subject to a one-year suspension and the loss of one season of competition in all sports. Given that a bounty system goes beyond gambling, it would be hard for the institution to make an argument for mitigating these penalties. Add in the fact that there could be repayment and further suspensions for the extra benefit violations, plus penalties for lying to the NCAA. There would likely be a number of student-athletes who are declared permanently ineligible and the rest would be facing suspensions that may start at a year.

Coaches and Administrators

There would likely be two show-cause orders handed down, with the possibility of a third. As important as the length of a show-cause order is, how the individual’s athletic duties are limited are even more important. Guessing there is even more difficult because the Committee on Infractions has only recently begun spelling these conditions out in the public report. 

The coach(es) who ran the bounty pool would be facing charges of providing extra benefits to student-athletes and unethical conduct. They would receive the most significant and lengthy penalties. Show-cause orders longer than three years are fairly uncommon, occurring in only a few cases in the last decade. In this case though, that might be the floor for coaches directly involved in the bounty scheme. Three to five years sounds about right. The coaches would likely be prohibited from any recruiting activities during that period, but the big question would be if or for how long they would be prohibited from all coaching activities, which would turn the show-cause into an extended suspension.

The head coach would likely also receive a show-cause order for the failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance and any unethical conduct violations he was involved with. Former Ohio State University head coach Jim Tressel’s show-cause order seems to offer the best model. It would likely be around 3 years long, and would include a suspension from gameday coaching activities, with six games probably the starting point.

Finally, there might be a show-cause order for the athletic director who failed to take action after being told to by the university president. Show-causes orders for administrators are even rarer. One of the very few in recent history was in Florida State University’s recent major infractions case where a learning specialist received a four year-long show-cause order during which she was prevented from having any contact with student-athletes. A show-cause order for an athletic director might include limiting him or her to no athletic duties or from having direct supervision of sports programs.

The Institution

Penalties for the institution would start with a lengthy probation, on the order of four or five years. This could be increased even more if the institution was found to not have cooperated with the investigation, beyond just the unethical conduct by individuals.

The extra benefits violation would result in the loss of scholarships. How many is the big question. The total dollar amount would be significant, but some of the individual amounts received by student-athletes would be relatively small. But when combined with the fact that the benefits were provided in a gambling ring that threatened student-athlete safety, the Committee on Infractions will not be inclined to offer relief. Once the athletes started receiving extra benefits, they would have been ineligible for competition, so records will be vacated as well.

The combination of gambling, safety, extra benefits, and a lack of institutional control on the institution’s part would mean a postseason ban for multiple years is possible, if not likely. Any money gained from postseason appearances with the ineligible student-athletes would need to be returned, and this might be a case where the NCAA would impose a financial penalty as they did in the recent Georgia Tech case.

In the end, the sanctions on the institution would be similar to those imposed on the University of Southern California. Significant scholarship loses, a multi-year postseason ban, a lengthy probation, and financial penalties. This all assumes that the case is decided under the current major infractions penalty system, not the new penalty matrix where this case would likely fall into the highest category of penalties given the number of aggravating factors.


  1. At least within the bounds of the collective bargaining agreement.  ↩

About John Infante

The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office. If you’re a coach, do not attempt to contact the author looking for a second opinion. If you’re a parent, don’t attempt to contact the author looking for a first opinion. Compliance professionals are by their nature helpful people generally dedicated to getting to the truth. Coaches should have a bit of faith in their own, and parents should talk to one directly.

All It Takes Is One

Many people have moved from asking whether college athletes should be paid or why they should be paid to how they could be paid. It’s a fatalistic position based on the fact that everywhere in the world, amateur sports eventually lost out to professional sports. The US has the odd quirk of attaching high level athletics to higher education but whether that ultimately makes a difference remains to be seen. For pay-for-play advocates, the answer is already that it should not.

But the more interesting question is when. Or more specifically what will be the trigger that sets in motion the move to professional college athletics? Candidates emerge and are annointed all the time. Newspaper and magazine articles, lawsuits, possible unionization, an influx of money into college athletes are all pointed to as being the tipping point. So far, none have panned out and the whole exercise is becoming a bit like the boy who cried wolf. But a possible answer has come from Brazil. It could be as simple as waiting for the best football or basketball player ever.

Even the casual sports fan knows of Lionel Messi but few outside of soccer fans are familiar with Neymar. Neymar is the future of the Brazilian National Team and may be the only player alive right now who could challenge Messi over his career. Neymar is a little younger than Messi, but should be doing battle with him in Spain’s La Liga or in the Champions League. An even more frightening prospect is the idea of the two of them as teammates at Barcelona. But while Messi is the star NBA point guard, Neymar has so far played the role of the streetball legend.

The reason is that many forces well beyond Neymar’s control are keeping him from leaving his boyhood Sao Paulo club of Santos. Chief among them is the convoluted ownership of Neymar’s transfer rights. Normally soccer clubs own these rights, buying and selling players on the transfer market. Neymar is the classic case of third-party ownership. In exchange for paying a portion of his salary, a number of third parties (agents and investment funds typically) own a portion of Neymar’s transfer rights. European clubs typically must buy out all of the third-party owners in addition to the original club. In Neymar’s case, that means at least two investment funds, the club, and Neymar himself (his company owns 10% of his transfer rights). All of these parties are looking for a return on their investment, meaning the total transfer fee needed is approaching record levels.

Money could solve all those problems, and despite upcoming financial fair play rules and clubs suffering with debt and losses, there surely exists a team on the continent who could pony up the transfer fee, which could approach nine figures (in dollars, euros, or pounds, however you care to slice it). But other forces are at work. For starters, Brazil’s robust economy compared to Europe is keeping players like Neymar within the means of Brazilian clubs:

 A few short years ago, there would be nothing to debate. Financial realities already would have forced Neymar across the Atlantic. Brazilian football simply would not be able to afford him. Times have changed, though. Europe is in crisis. Brazil’s economy has been enjoying a consumer-led boom. For companies seeking to connect with those consumers, an involvement with football makes sense. Sponsors, then, can be brought on board to help with the wages that big-name players can command as much at home as by moving to Europe.

Those means extend all the way to the government. Banco do Brasil, one of the country’s largest banks, was prepared to help finance Neymar’s new contract with Santos. Banco do Brasil also happens to be state-run. In the end a private bank stepped in, albeit with with an extensive sponsorship deal that may further complicate a future move for the player.

Beyond means though is the possibility of revolutionizing Brazilian soccer. In most countries, the United States included, clubs run their own league, sharing some of the power with the national federation. In Brazil though, state federations have disproportionately high influence in the structure of the game. The result is that major clubs in Brazil spend January through May participating in state leagues against tiny clubs. Imagine the Lakers having to spend the offseason playing semi-pro and amateur teams, with even the right to stay in the NBA on the line and you get a sense of the idea. One hope is that as the big clubs gain the financial might to challenge European teams for players, they will also gain the political power to break away from the state championships and create a national league and cup system similar to the rest of the world.

What does all this have to do with college sports? For starters, one athlete in a different hemisphere under a totally different set of rules has encapsulated many of the issues and debates facing college athletics. How much should governments invest in or interfere with athletic teams? Should programs be run to maximize the success of a few teams or athletes or to provide as many opportunities as possible (Santos shut down its women’s team and its futsal team, a form of indoor soccer, just to pay Neymar)? How much of how a program is run or control over an athlete’s career should be ceded to third parties (or the club itself)? How important is regional vs. national interest? And what is the responsibility of the haves to maintain some degree of competitive equity or even engage in competition at all with the have nots?

Collegiate athletics can also learn from the fact that one athlete, simply by being a great athlete, could potentially cause massive change to how a sport operates in an entire country. It would be like if LeBron James had decided to go to college and stay for four years, so the entire structure of the NCAA was changed to accommodate him. The main difference might be that while there might not be true alternatives in either Brazil or the United States for Brazil’s professional leagues and college athletics, in the US there are at least potential alternatives, like professional youth leagues or amateur development operated by national governing bodies.

Could it happen here? The short answer is: it depends. The long answer is that it will and already has, in bits and pieces. Athletes who are “too good” for college have been a problem solved in a myriad of ways across the many sports the NCAA oversees. Generally they’re presented with a choice: amateurism and education in the NCAA or payment and training in a professional setting. We’ve yet to have a major showdown between a once-in-a-generation athlete who desperately wants to go to college and an NCAA not designed to accommodate him or her (given that this would almost certainly be a football or men’s basketball athlete, probably him).

Because potential alternatives exist, it would require abandoning the assumption that colleges, backed by state and federal taxpayers and committed to different missions should be involved in the development of elite athletes and asking the hard question about whether they should. An American Neymar is almost a certainty in the foreseeable future (15–20 years). But rather than moving the NCAA and its members forward, the major change could be the end of elite, commercial college athletics.

About John Infante

The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office. If you’re a coach, do not attempt to contact the author looking for a second opinion. If you’re a parent, don’t attempt to contact the author looking for a first opinion. Compliance professionals are by their nature helpful people generally dedicated to getting to the truth. Coaches should have a bit of faith in their own, and parents should talk to one directly.

A Simple Reason Schools Drug Test

In the wake of news that Syracuse is facing potential violations of NCAA Bylaw 10.2, people are asking why schools drug test at all. Bylaw 10.2 does not require schools to have a drug testing program, but does require them to follow the program, especially the consequences for positive tests, if they have one. If a school fails to adhere to their drug testing program, it faces the possibility of going on probation, which would in essence mean NCAA monitoring of the school’s institutional drug testing program. Why expose yourself to these risks, the theory goes, if the rules don’t require you to?

Ignore for a moment a number of very good reasons to have a drug testing program: the health of athletes, identifying individuals who need treatment and help with a problem, and the fact that in a lot of cases taking recreational or performance enhancing drugs is illegal. Also ignore for a second the idea that maybe the NCAA’s rules should just be the floor for what is required and schools so go above and beyond them sometimes. Even if all an athletic department cares about is winning, it should still have a drug testing program, simply because the NCAA does.

The NCAA conducts drug testing both at championship sites and as part of a random, year-round testing program. Most schools can probably expect a visit once or twice a year, although a positive test at a school may draw more frequent testing for a while. Year-round means year-round too; the NCAA has tested baseball players up in Alaska during summer ball, for example.

The penalties for a positive NCAA drug test are hefty. For the first offense, student-athletes lose a season of competition in all sports and are suspended for 365 days.[1] If a student-athlete tests positive a second time for a recreational or street drug (a designation only three substances have, everything else is considered performance enhancing), the athlete faces the same penalty: lose a season of competition and sit out for a year. If a student-athlete’s second positive test is for a performance enhancing drug, he or she loses all remaining eligibility in all sports.

If an institution does not conduct drug testing, that means when the school receives notice that athletes will be drug tested by the NCAA (typically a day or two in advance), it has no idea which athletes might be on the verge of a year-long suspension, and has done nothing to help those athletes possibly avoid that fate.

From a cynical standpoint of just what helps the athletic department competitively, volunteering to suspend athletes for 25% of the season, for example, is a lot better than hoping they do not lose whole seasons at a time. When they are done well, institutional drug testing programs have a therapy or rehabilitation component, are good examples of progressive discipline, and remind student-athletes of the consequences of a positive NCAA drug test which might come infrequently but carries dire consequences.


  1. The loss of a season of competition can add up quickly because it is in addition to the use of eligibility for competition. So if an athlete plays in the first game of the season, then has a positive NCAA drug test, he or she has used one season of competition and loses another season of competition for the positive test.  ↩

About John Infante

The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office. If you’re a coach, do not attempt to contact the author looking for a second opinion. If you’re a parent, don’t attempt to contact the author looking for a first opinion. Compliance professionals are by their nature helpful people generally dedicated to getting to the truth. Coaches should have a bit of faith in their own, and parents should talk to one directly.

Majoring in the Minors

One of the most common criticisms of the NCAA is that it is (or has been for a long time), the minor league for the NFL and the NBA. With no youth or developmental system at all in professional basketball and football, it is left to college athletics to develop players after they leave high school.

That raises intense, heated debate about the responsibility of the NCAA and its members, given that the major leagues have as little or maybe even less interest in providing a professional option for 18–23 year olds. But it also raises a different and more important question of what the NCAA’s responsibility is to those players for their development.

Because one of the best arguments against the idea that the NCAA is operating the NFL and NBA’s developmental leagues is that the NCAA seems wholly uninterested in developing professional athletes. Sure, plenty of professional athletes come out of college athletics, not just in sports with no other options. And sure, some programs have a huge pipeline to the pro ranks. But all of this is in spite of many of the NCAA’s rules rather than because of them.

Seasons are generally short, with some sports have far too few games and some sports having far too many against too inconsistent a level of competition. Practice time with coaches is tightly restricted, and often has to cede to games when the schedule gets congested. And in the offseason, there is little or no time to develop skills.

Instead, NCAA rules regarding playing and practice seasons are designed to provide as high a level of a competitive experience to student-athletes without an unacceptable level of disruption to the academic experience. Rather than professional athletes, the rules are focused on creating national champions and college graduates.

This does help some student-athletes become professional athletes due to the sheer volume of athletes who get an opportunity to compete at a high level. But the process is haphazard. Defenders of the NBA’s age limit (and to a lesser extent the NFL’s) point to failed pro careers that started to early. But how many potential pro careers are ruined by the athlete not getting the intensive training and maybe even competition at a consistently elite level?

You could run college athletics as a developmental league, with longer seasons, fewer games against higher levels of competition, and more incentives for producing pros than for winning games. And it would not be a revolutionary idea to provide an education and training in a discipline that the vast majority of students will never make a living from (see: many performing and arts majors).

But the best musicians are produced in conservatories and the best actors come from performing arts schools. A university can develop and produce talented entertainers, but it would be hard to argue that the specialized environment doesn’t have a number of advantages a university never will.

The fight over pay-for-play and academic standards is part of a larger discussion about what we do with athletes between the ages of about 12 and 22. To come up with an answer, we need an answer to this question: How important is going to high school and college with their peer group for professional athletes? Do they have to reach those milestones at the normal ages to get the benefits? Do they have to go to traditional educational institutions? Or is simply getting the education at some point the key?

If it is important, then the onus maybe on universities, as institutions that are part of the public trust, to provide this type of training and increase access to college for elite developing athletes. But if not, it might be time to seriously question why we insist on hammering a square peg into a round hole.

About John Infante

The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office. If you’re a coach, do not attempt to contact the author looking for a second opinion. If you’re a parent, don’t attempt to contact the author looking for a first opinion. Compliance professionals are by their nature helpful people generally dedicated to getting to the truth. Coaches should have a bit of faith in their own, and parents should talk to one directly.

Tip of the Iceberg

When it comes to the complexity of NCAA rules, the 400-odd page Division I Manual is not the problem. True, the Manual could use a little bit of work. It’s been getting face lifts and tummy tucks over the past couple of years as the NCAA staff has reorganized some bylaws. The Manual is due for a bit of major surgery next year as only the most important bylaws will be in the dead tree edition. Overnight, the size of the Manual and the frequency of phone book comparison could be halved.

But the Manual is just the start of the “NCAA rules”. When the book does not have the answers, compliance officers turn to the Legislative Services Database (commonly known as LSDBi). LSDBi has and will continue to have all 4005 current and future bylaws. But it also has 7138 interpretations of those bylaws issued by either the NCAA staff or the Legislative Review and Interpretations Committee. Some of those are archived, but even archived interps can be useful for the more specific questions.

Beyond interpretations, the NCAA also issues education columns, explanations of NCAA rules. They can offer critical insights into applying NCAA rules, periodic reminders of bylaws that require extra attention and Q&A’s to clear up confusion about bylaws and proposals. While they are not “law” in the way interpretations or bylaws are, they cannot be ignored. And there are 2269 of them.

Then comes the case law. Most people know about the 681 major infractions cases since 1953. And many people know that secondary infractions occur all the time. And all of the time means all of the time. Over 17,500 in Division I in the last five years alone (and the database doesn’t go back further).

In addition to the violations, there are waivers. In the database, waivers are divided into three different categories: initial eligibility, progress-toward-degree, and legislative release waivers. And a lot of those have been filed over the years:

  • Almost 6,000 initial eligibility waivers;
  • Close to 3,000 progress-toward-degree waivers;
  • Over 3,500 legislative relief waivers (last five years only).

The end result is that when a question is asked, there are over 40,000 places to look for an answer.

The current review by the Rules Working Group is not plastic surgery. The rule book that comes out will be the Six Million Dollar Man of rule books. But the effect is bigger than shaving pages off the rule book. Each rule that ends up on the cutting room floor could mean dozens of interps and hundreds of violations and waivers can get filed away. Then comes the really hard part: keeping things that way.

About John Infante

The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office. If you’re a coach, do not attempt to contact the author looking for a second opinion. If you’re a parent, don’t attempt to contact the author looking for a first opinion. Compliance professionals are by their nature helpful people generally dedicated to getting to the truth. Coaches should have a bit of faith in their own, and parents should talk to one directly.

Multi-Year Scholarships and Oversigning Limits Go Hand-In-Hand

To say that oversigning is a major issue in college football is incorrect. Roster management is the issue, with oversigning being just one facet of the larger controversy. It would be absurdly easy to eliminate oversigning with no improvement in student-athlete welfare.

All sports have roster management challenges. The other headcount sports have to manage relatively small scholarship limits in gigantic, full scholarship chunks. Equivalency sports have the complexity of varying amounts of aid and a renewal process that includes increases and decreases as well as renewals and nonrenewals. Men’s sports have roster maximums, women’s sports may have roster minimums. And baseball combines all of them, with NCAA limits on counters, equivalencies, roster size, and minimum scholarship amounts, plus how MLB’s liberal draft policies create uncertainty once a player is a junior.

The challenges of roster management become a controversy in football for three reasons. First and most obvious is that football garners the most attention. Second, the physical nature of the game and the large roster size make depth as important as top talent for some teams, magnifying what happens to each and every scholarship player. And third, football’s initial counter rule means the roster of incoming players comes under the same pressures as the student-athletes already on the team, during a recruiting and signing process that is becoming more popular with fans.

In responding to Tennessee head football coach Derek Dooley’s criticism of the SEC’s (and next year NCAA’s) new limit of 25 signees, David Wunderlich proposed just that: eliminate the limit on initial counters and adopt a Big Ten-style oversigning rule based on the 85 overall counter limit. That would give coaches greater flexibility by removing one limit and basing any signing limit on the more fundamental of football’s two scholarship limits. The problem is that in the current environment, the Big Ten’s rule does not scale.

If you were to ask when an athletic scholarship naturally ends, there are two correct answers. One is that scholarships end when the period of award is over, which for a long time has been a maximum of one year. But student-athletes have the opportunity to appeal any time their scholarship is reduced, non-renewed, or cancelled until they exhaust their eligibility. If a football player redshirts, graduates in four years, then walks in to quit the team, he still must be offered the opportunity to appeal the cancellation of his scholarship.

Key to the Big Ten’s oversigning limit is evaluating why scholarships are ending and judging whether schools should be able to replace that student-athlete with a new recruit. The stability and homogeneousness of the Big Ten’s membership has made this workable. Whether it remains workable in a larger conference with more fluid and diverse membership is questionable. And the idea of the NCAA running such an office sounds like a trap for the Association.

Without this evaluation, the oversigning limit is meaningless because a coach can simply clear out enough scholarships for whatever size class he wants by nonrenewing more current players before signing day. Those student-athletes might even be given the opportunity to earn back their scholarship during spring practice, creating the same situation we are trying to eliminate, where 90 current and prospective student-athletes might be competing for 85 scholarships. The only win for student-athlete welfare is that the scholarships are not renewed prior to signing day, so student-athletes could seek out a new school.

But if Proposal 2011–97 survives the ongoing override vote and multi-year scholarships become an option, the need for an evaluation of why a scholarship ended by a conference would be reduced if not eliminated. If four- or five-year agreements are the standard, then they are close enough to the end of the right to an appeal that they become more useful. If different lengths of scholarships are offered, athletes offered only one or two years of aid are on notice that their scholarship offers no guarantees beyond those couple of years.

Proposal 2010–74, the Big Ten’s failed baseball oversigning proposal, offers a guide for a potential rule. That proposal would have prevented baseball teams from oversigning by more than one equivalency spread over two individuals. But because it was designed for the limited time between MLB’s draft and signing deadline, the limit was set as written offers to prospects plus executed agreements with current student-athletes for the following year. As a result, the rule would have had little effect during the fall and part of the spring signing periods.

But with multi-year scholarships, football teams would have some agreements already executed for following years. If four-year or longer scholarships are the norm, then most agreements will already cover the next year. The rule might look something like this:

15.5.1.10.1 Executed Financial Aid Awards and Written Offers Exceeding Maximum Allowable Awards – Football.  In football, for an ensuing academic year, the combination of executed athletically related financial aid awards and outstanding written offers of athletically related financial aid (per Bylaw 15.3.2.3) to prospective student-athletes and student-athletes shall not exceed the maximum number of permissible awards (see Bylaw 15.5.6.1).

I would add the following as an additional limitation:

15.5.1.10.1.1 Cancellation of Multi-Year Agreements. An institution must count agreements that have been cancelled against the limit in Bylaw 15.5.1.10.1 until the student-athlete has exhausted or waived all appeal opportunities under Bylaw 15.3.2.4.

To clear roster space, a coach would have to find a permissible reason to cancel a scholarship during the period of award and complete the appeal process all prior to signing day. Adding in an exception if a coach grants permission to contact every Division I institution (an “unconditional release”) or pairing this oversigning limit with a transfer rule that granted a great deal of freedom to a student-athlete whose scholarship was cancelled would complicate matters, but would also discourage more roster turnover.

As much as roster management generally and oversigning in particular are seen as a numbers game, the controversy lies in individual cases. The Big Ten’s current rule does a good job of addressing the individuals potentially impacted when a school oversigns. If multi-year scholarships survive, there will be less need for conferences to examine the decisions on individual scholarships. Whether a scholarship ends prior to a student graduating or exhausting his eligibility will be based more on the scholarship he accepted or meeting the more objective requirements of the agreement.

About John Infante

The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office. If you’re a coach, do not attempt to contact the author looking for a second opinion. If you’re a parent, don’t attempt to contact the author looking for a first opinion. Compliance professionals are by their nature helpful people generally dedicated to getting to the truth. Coaches should have a bit of faith in their own, and parents should talk to one directly.

A $2,000 Tail Wagging a $30 Million Dog

Size is always relative. For example, right now Apple could be called the only big business in the technology sector. That’s not to say that Microsoft and Google are small, but when one company has a larger market capitalization that both its main competitors and almost $100 billion in the bank, the rest of the industry has so little weight to throw around they must come up with new ways to compete.

There’s a constant refrain that athletics is and/or should be big business. Except the entirety of college sports is barely as big as the NFL’s TV contracts. More importantly, an athletic department is often attached to a university with a budget that might be so much larger that athletics could be lumped in under “Miscellaneous”. Texas’ $150 million in athletics revenue looks impressive until measured against the university’s $2.2 billion operating budget.

The newest idea to provide up to $2,000 in additional financial aid to student-athletes is another example of how athletic departments still do not have nearly the financial weight that a university does. The new proposal is based on financial need, with student-athletes only being eligible for the grant if their athletic scholarship, other grants and scholarships, and Expected Family Contribution is less than the cost of attendance.

Still missing from the new concept is part of the original proposal which was normally overlooked by the public: an almost total deregulation of non-athletics aid. In equivalency sports, once a student-athlete receives any athletics aid at all and becomes a counter, all financial aid he or she is receiving from the institution is also included when determining how much the student-athlete counts against team financial aid limits, subject to some exceptions.

This is not the first time this idea has come up. In 2009 and 2010, Division I discussed the idea as part of a comprehensive review of the financial aid rules. The cabinet decided not to move forward with the concept, instead going ahead with more limited deregulation of state and federal financial aid.

When you look at the financial muscle of a university, it is easy to see why schools are wary of removing all regulations in this area. Stanford recently completed a $6.2 billion fundraising campaign which created $250 million in new need-based financial aid. That’s three times Stanford’s total athletics budget. If Stanford’s student-athletes received a proportional amount of this new financial aid (they represent 12% of the student population), $30 million in additional financial aid would flow to athletes, almost twice what Stanford spends on athletic scholarships.

It is reasonable to ask why having more money in your athletic department is considered a fair advantage but having a bigger and better financial aid office across campus is a threat to competitive equity. The impact though is not debatable. Look at the success of the Ivy League, which neatly bypasses non-athletics aid limits by not giving athletic scholarships (something to consider in the debate over whether they should start). Ivy student-athletes are free to accept all the financial aid they can get their hands on, and as the Ancient Eight expands aid available to the middle class, results are translating to the fields, courts, rinks, and pools.

If major deregulation of these limits ever happens, coaches would not need to bully financial aid offices for it to be a gamechanger. Financial need and academic merit would become just as important as athletic talent, if not more so. Coaches whose recruiting lines up with the institution’s larger efforts to attract students would be at a tremendous advantage. And if a mega booster gives $20 million to endow scholarships that might help the baseball team, is that so bad if the vast majority of the aid just goes to needy students in general?

None of this will happen though unless institutions realize and accept the true size of an athletic department, especially financially. When classes are cancelled to accommodate the crowd for a home game, it might seem like athletics dominates the university. Expanding athletics aid by $2,000 even just for needy students is a significant addition to an athletics budget. When it comes to finances though, it’s clear who is the tail and who is the dog. What’s not clear is who should be wagging whom.

About John Infante

The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office. If you’re a coach, do not attempt to contact the author looking for a second opinion. If you’re a parent, don’t attempt to contact the author looking for a first opinion. Compliance professionals are by their nature helpful people generally dedicated to getting to the truth. Coaches should have a bit of faith in their own, and parents should talk to one directly.

You Cannot Stop Signing Day

In late January or early February every year, there is a new round of consternation about the growth of football’s Signing Day. Once only a day of celebration for recruits and watched by only the most ardent fans and boosters, signing day has gone mainstream, thanks to television, recruiting websites, and social media.

That growth has led to a circus atmosphere and a culture of oneupmanship between prospects and coaches. Recruits are coming up with ever more creative ways to indicate they have picked a school, with small animals and children now part of the act. While coaches are hemmed in to some degree by recruiting rules, they have explored every bit of space given and somehow manage to find something new to try every year.

There have been more and more calls to end signing day and return to the days before the National Letter of Intent when prospects could sign whenever they chose. With less focus on one day at the beginning of February, prospects would commit and sign whenever they feel most comfortable. Recruiting and signing would be a year-round process with less pressure to wrap it up on a specific day.

If the goal is to reduce attention on the recruiting process and make it a more private decision involving the player and the college coach, that horse has left the barn. With no signing day, each top prospect would get their own signing day. As much signing day can be a circus, it is still a communal experience prospects share with the rest of their class, future teammates and friends who play other sports.

There will always be a day that prospects can start signing scholarship offers. The only way to make that day irrelevant is to make it so early that most college coaches will not commit to a prospect at that time. But some will, so you would need to be comfortable with freshmen in high school or eighth graders signing scholarships, even if it would be only a small fraction of recruits.

There’s also the small matter of the NLI. Even the strongest opponent of the NLI should recognize the need for a prospect to be able to shutdown the recruiting process. But even the most ardent supporter of the NLI would probably agree that underclassmen in high school should not be signing anything which locks them into their choice, even temporarily. That means there must be a point where prospects can start to really end the recruiting process and that day is likely to be late enough (junior or senior year) that prospects will be ready to commit, especially if the pressure is focused on that specific day.

Much like democracy, the February signing date is the worst way for prospects to sign with a school, except for all the others. The season is over and coaching changes have mostly been made. It sets the date for committing to a school at roughly the time most high school seniors commit to attending a college. And prospects do not have to sign on signing day, an option more and more are taking, especially during basketball’s early signing period.

By and large signing day is harmless fun. Kids who have worked hard from a very young age get a day to celebrate the culmination of that effort and get to do it with their peers, parents, coaches, and teachers. All of the negatives associated with signing day are so ingrained in the recruiting process that getting rid of signing day will only move those problems rather than combat them.

About John Infante

The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office. If you’re a coach, do not attempt to contact the author looking for a second opinion. If you’re a parent, don’t attempt to contact the author looking for a first opinion. Compliance professionals are by their nature helpful people generally dedicated to getting to the truth. Coaches should have a bit of faith in their own, and parents should talk to one directly.

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