Attention in the deregulation fight within the NCAA has been focused on recruiting rules. And rightly so. Recruiting is the lifeblood of a program and a necessary evil in the minds of most coaches. They would rather be doing other things, but they have to recruit. So any change that might require them to recruit more, changes their pet recruiting tricks, or makes recruiting more burdensome or tedious draws widespread opposition.
But another proposal has quietly slipped through while all the attention is focused elsewhere. It represents a significant change, and drew override requests almost immediately. But it was not until a few days ago when an NCAA Q&A demonstrated just how far the proposal might go.
The proposal is RWG–16–3, and here is its intent:
To specify that an institution, conference or the NCAA may finance other academic support, career counseling or personal development services that support the success of student-athletes.
In the bylaw changes, the proposal adds conferences and the NCAA to the groups that can finance these services; broadens the allowable services beyond those with an academic focus; and removes the following specific limitations.
- Use of computers now does not need to be on a check-out and retrieval basis.
- Use of copiers, printers, fax machines, and phones does not need to have an academic purpose.
- Athletes can receive course supplies beyond those required of all students in a course.
- The athletic department can now pay for optional field trips.
- Electronic and well as nonelectronic planners can be distributed to athletes.
It is easy to see how the changes impact academic support. In the richest athletic departments, athletes will receive iPads and/or laptops to use during their entire career. All course supplies and services will be available free of charge. And athletic departments have greater discretion to provide optional materials and experiences to athletes. The academic arms race, already underway, will heat up a degree.
But Proposal 16–3 goes further. Career counseling opens up another world of possibilities. Resume workshops and career fairs are already common. But athletic departments may now be able to pay for athlete’s interview, buy interview clothing for athletes, or pay for them to attend any conference or event related to a potential career they might seek.
It is also easy to see how this gets twisted beyond career counseling. A basketball team could justify a private tour of an arena, meeting a professional team, and sitting in the owner’s suite for a game if the players are exploring a career in sports marketing. Between this proposal and Proposal RWG–16–5, which allows more entertainment activities for student-athletes, a lot of previously questionable and clearly impermissible activities will now be allowed.
Career counseling is not even the end of it. Proposal 16–3 also allows for services that enhance “personal development”. That could be almost anything, like health and wellness education, psychological counseling, budgeting and finance workshops, media training, or “enrichment activities”. For instance, could maid service for athletes be considered a part of personal development since it helps athletes live in a calmer, cleaner, more organized environment?
Goods as well as services will be part of pushing this new envelope. The NCAA’s Q&A on the proposal expressly allows laptops and tablets, but iPhones with cell phone service could be justifiable. Having a smartphone makes staying in touch with tutors and professors easier, are widely used in many careers, and help the athlete build and maintain stronger personal relationships with those around them. If an athlete has an internship across town, allowing them to use athletic department vehicles is both an academic and career service (although transportation or parking for class is prohibited).
You can already stretch this proposal way out of proportion, but the NCAA went even further in the Q&A:
* Question No. 5:* May personal development services include athletic development?
Answer: Generally, if an institution is involved in providing athletic development services, including any expenses related to such development, to a student-athlete (e.g., providing related expenses), such activities may only occur season or as part of out-of-season conditioning or skill instruction. In either case, such activities must be counted toward the applicable limits on countable athletically related activities.
The answer here does not really address the question. It does however assume that paying for “athletic development services” are permissible. It is anyone’s guess as to what those are. The NCAA still has a prohibition on the use of outside consultants. So it is unlikely that a school could get away with bringing in specialty coaches to work on skill instruction with athletes who have eligibility remaining.
But strength and conditioning work might be another story. And preparing athletes for a draft or outside competition might be OK as well. Yoga and flexibility training as well as speed work will be the first place this proposal is tested. To get around the outside consultants ban, schools had to hire full-time instructors in these disciplines. The question now is whether a school can justify these expenses as “athletic development services” rather than just having someone else show up for a workout instead of a normal coaching staff.
Proposal 16–3 has good intentions but like many of the proposals in this round of deregulation it suffers from vagueness. It also highlights the danger of focusing on the physical size of the NCAA Manual as the test of whether college sports is over- or under-regulated. Proposal 16–3 results in a net removal of about 175 words from the Manual. But if it ends up adding 20 interpretations totaling thousands of words to the LSDBi database, then the result is an equally confusing regulation that is equally difficult to monitor, but is less accessible and under less membership control.