INDIANAPOLIS - The scandal-plagued NCAA is moving swiftly to clean up its image.
On Thursday, the Division I Board of Directors approved a package of sweeping reforms that gives conferences the option of adding more money to scholarship offers, schools the opportunity to award scholarships for multiple years, imposes tougher academic standards on recruits and changes the summer basketball recruiting model.
“It was one of the most aggressive and fullest agendas the board has ever faced,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. “They moved with dispatch on it, and I think they’re taking positive steps for schools and student-athletes.”
For decades, outsiders have debated whether college scholarships should include more than just the cost of tuition, room and board, books and fees. Now they can.
The board approved a measure allowing conferences to vote on providing up to $2,000 in spending money, or what the NCAA calls the full cost-of-attendance. Emmert insists it is not pay-for-play, merely the reintroduction of a stipend that existed for college athletes until 1972.
He also compared it to the stipends received by other students who receive non-athletic scholarships.
Some thought the total amount should have been higher.
But many believe the measure is long overdue.
“I think it needs to happen or else I think what’s left of the system itself is going to implode,” said Ohio University professor David Ridpath, past president of The Drake Group, an NCAA watchdog. “We’ve always lost the moral high ground by saying the educational model is what makes this thing go. I think we’re delivering a model that can exploit kids while they’re here.”
Extra money won’t solve all of the NCAA’s problems.
Schools must infer the cost of additional funding and it will have to be doled out equally to men’s and women’s athletes because of Title IX rules. While BCS schools have the money and are expected to swiftly approve additional funding, it may prove too costly for non-BCS schools.
There are fears it will increase the disparity between the haves and the have-nots and could prompt another round of conference realignment.
The board also approved a measure that will give individual schools the authority to award scholarships on a multiple-year basis.
Under the current model, those scholarships are renewed annually and can be revoked for any reason. If adopted, schools could guarantee scholarships for the player’s entire career and would be unable to revoke it based solely on athletic performance. Scholarships could still be pulled for reasons such as poor grades, academic misconduct or other forms of improper behavior.
Ridpath said he’s personally been involved with 50 or 60 appeals cases after a coach pulled a player’s scholarship.
“The reason usually is they find a prettier girl to bring to the dance,” he said. “If you’re Frank Beamer or Nick Saban, they make a lot of money, and they should be able to coach that kid up.”
University presidents are moving quickly to repair the damage caused by a year full of scandals.
Schools from Miami to Boise State, including the reigning the champions in football (Auburn) and men’s basketball (Connecticut), have all come under NCAA scrutiny. The U.S. Department of Justice started asking questions about scholarships, Congress has held hearings about a variety of NCAA-related issues and conference realignment has continued to spin wildly.
So, the NCAA’s board went back to basics and placed a renewed emphasis on academics.
In August, the board approved raising the four-year Academic Progress Rate cutline from 900 to 930 and linking that cutline to eligibility for postseason play. On Thursday, it passed a four-year plan to phase in the new requirements.
During the first two years, 2012-13 and 2013-14, teams scoring below 900 on the four-year average would be ineligible for postseason play unless the averaged 930 on the two most recent years of data. In 2014-15, teams that do not hit the 930 mark would be ineligible unless they averaged 940 in the two most recent years. After that, everyone must hit 930, no exceptions.
Schools that do not make the grade could also face additional penalties such as reductions in practice time and game limits, coaches suspensions, scholarship reductions and restricted NCAA membership.
The board also approved a measure to include the provision in its bowl licensing agreements, which means it will apply to football teams, too.
UConn’s men’s basketball team could be the first team to feel the impact.
After posting an 826 last year, a UConn official has said this year’s mark will be approximately 975. It would give Connecticut a two-year score of 900.5 and a four-year average of 888.5 - both too low to make the basketball tourney.
“That’s unfortunate,” Knight Commission member Len Elmore said. “It’s a cautionary tale, but the need for, again, focusing on the true mission of the university is to graduate players and you can’t fail at the most important task whether you’re national champions or not.”
Emmert said if the new rule had been used last year, seven men’s basketball teams and eight football teams would have been ineligible for the postseason. And there’s almost no way out for teams who don’t make the grade.
“You can appeal, but we are going to be very, very strict about appeals,” said Walt Harrison, chairman of the committee on academic performance. “So we really don’t expect waivers to be a major factor.”
As part of the plan, the board agreed to raise eligibility standards for incoming freshmen and junior college transfers. Previously, high school seniors needed a 2.0 GPA in 16 core courses. Now they’ll need a 2.3 and will have to complete 10 of those classes before their senior year.
Junior college transfers will need a 2.5 GPA and can only count two physical education credits toward their eligibility.
The other big issue was summer basketball recruiting.
The board has agreed to drop the text messaging ban and allow unlimited contacts to prep players after June 15 of their sophomore year. But coaches. But instead of having 20 evaluation days in July, coaches will have four in April, previous a dead period, and 12 in July. And they’ll have more on-campus contact with recruits and current players during the summer. Some of those details will be worked out in January.
Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said the changes could help limit the influence of agents or unscrupulous coaches, which has become yet another problem for the NCAA.
“In the summer, there are third-parties looking to access our student-athletes as well, work them out,” Haney said. “So by allowing access in the summer, we allow coaches to empower our players to become better players.”
The NCAA still has plenty of issues to tackle.
In January, the board is expected to get recommendations on how to shrink the massive rulebook. On Thursday, it backed a plan to focus on integrity issues rather than specifics, and it could include a new definition of who qualifies as an agent. A vote isn’t expected until April.
The NCAA did not talk about its long-discussed agent registry or forming panel to help college players make decisions about turning pro.
And it still plans to scrap the current two-tiered penalty structure in favor of four categories with specific penalty guidelines. A vote on that will not likely come until next October.
“I think there’s a recognition that the (old) process invited people to step over the line because it was very convoluted,” Elmore said. “Now we’re getting swift, severe sanctions, and that’s what we need.”