Widgets Magazine

The Pac-12 presidents’ letter in the state of today’s NCAA

Joseph Beyda (JB): Hi, I’m Joey.

Cameron Miller (CM): Hey, I’m Cameron.

JB: And we’ve had…our differences…regarding the NCAA’s treatment of student-athletes over the last couple months.

CM: But today we’re sitting down in the hopes of discussing some of those differences, with the starting point being the recently released letter that Pac-12 presidents sent to their colleagues at the other power conferences.

JB: The letter listed a series of reforms, addressing issues ranging from student-athlete scholarships and practice limits to the one-and-done rule and transfer restrictions.

CM: Some of these provisions are a huge step in the right direction for college athletics, as they at least partially lift some of the most draconian restrictions from student-athletes and give them the seat at the bargaining table they deserve. However, this document is just a start, and the details of the provisions need to be hammered out if any of these changes are to result in real, lasting change.

JB: For some background, I’ve been more on the side of the NCAA and the current system in these discussions so far. While I agree that we need to take steps to make sure that student-athletes have a viable lifestyle — for one, they shouldn’t go to bed hungry at night — I’ve also expressed my fears of opening up the system entirely to salaries, endorsement deals and the bevy of other money sources that flow through collegiate athletics.

The last thing we want is to ruin the parity of college athletics with an all-out bidding war for the top athletes, or to further increase the divide between the revenue and non-revenue sports by intensifying the monetary focus on football and men’s basketball. So I’m looking for reforms that make the system fairer to student-athletes, but don’t entirely overthrow our current concept of amateurism.

CM: I started this discussion we’re having now with a column I wrote back in April in which I argued that student-athletes were, are and continue to be exploited by an amateurism model that seeks to line the pockets of overseers like NCAA President Mark Emmert and conference commissioners.

Student-athletes, particularly those in revenue sports, have a fundamentally different relationship with the universities they attend vis-à-vis other students, and I believe they need to be treated in a different manner. I also argued that in a world where student-athletes are employees, their scholarships cannot be seen as compensation because those scholarship dollars go into university coffers, not the those of the athletes. Finally, I believe that if other university students are allowed to market themselves and their talents and abilities, why shouldn’t athletes be able to do the same? Overall, it appears to me that the NCAA is unfairly and unjustly restricting athletes in ways that just don’t make much sense.

JB: So now, on to the reforms specified by the Pac-12 presidents last month. As Cameron mentioned, several of the ideas outlined in that letter are long overdue and could be a huge step forward for college athletics, if implemented.

The first three bullet points in the letter address some of the financial burdens currently placed on student-athletes. The presidents wrote that scholarships should cover the full cost of a student’s attendance, that ongoing medical care should cover athletics-related injuries even past graduation and that scholarships should last long enough for the student-athlete to finish his or her degree. These are all ideas that came up in our columns and they’re really no-brainers for us.

CM: Joey and I are in total agreement here — shocking, I know. However, my only concern is the phrasing “reasonable ongoing medical or insurance assistance.” How much help is “reasonable”? Who is to be judge of the “reasonableness” of the medical care provided to a student-athlete beyond their four or five years at the institution? These are the types of details that could impact the ultimate efficacy of these provisions, should they be implemented.

The next set of proposals in the letter are changes to the current time limits student-athletes are able to commit to their sport on a weekly basis. These limits are often exceeded [with] impunity, with coaches scheduling “voluntary” or captain-led practices that do not count against the 20-hour in-season rule (8 hours if off-season). These practices are anything but optional, and coaches squeeze through these types of loopholes in order to prepare as much as they see fit. Joey and I both agree that by strictly enforcing these already-existing rules, student-athletes will have more and better opportunities to explore their non-athletic interests, whether they are social or academic.

JB: Speaking of academic, the Pac-12 presidents also proposed that the NCAA strengthen the postseason requirements relating to the Academic Progress Rate, which measures the academic eligibility and retention rates of a team’s athletes over time. These are the same restrictions that kept UConn out of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2012-13 — of course, the Huskies won it all the following season — and everyone’s favorite college sports program, Stanford, has historically thrived in the APR results. Sounds good, right Cameron?

CM: Almost. While I’m not in love with the punitive nature of the APR, I am all for raising the standards for student-athletes. My main issue with the APR is the fact that it can punish current athletes for the transgressions of past players and coaching regimes. This type of ex-post facto punishment is unfair, because it may take away competition opportunities for players who had absolutely nothing to do with their squad’s low APR.

JB: That’s a very good point, and the NCAA would have to be more aware of that effect if it increases the penalties associated with the APR.

Another element of the letter was a proposal that student-athletes have a bigger spot at the bargaining table, both at the conference and NCAA levels. This is an issue that has become very prevalent recently with the unionization discussions at Northwestern, and we agree that it makes sense that student-athletes themselves should have a more pronounced role in governing the system. Unfortunately, the presidents didn’t specify exactly what they think such a role would look like. Cameron, as a runner yourself, what do you think are some of the specific discussions that student-athletes could best contribute to in this regard?

CM: Student-athletes can be a very productive part of the administrative conversation on both the conference and NCAA levels. Athletes should be able to voice their opinions on scheduling, marketing, stipends and any other rules frameworks that impact their everyday lives. Not only do their opinions need to be heard, they need to be respected and earnestly considered by those in positions of authority. The model of the NCAA needs to be redirected so that its one and only focus is the student-athlete and his or her interests, and the most effective way to do that is providing athletes with their deserved seat at the negotiating table.

Another way that the student-athlete’s best interests can be served is significantly altering the current transfer rules, a point that is included by the presidents in their letter. What do you think of their suggestion, Joey?

JB: A lot has been made of the inherent hypocrisy of transfer rules. Why should a coach — or even a regular student — be able to switch locales freely, while a student-athlete has to get a release from his or her coach? It’s hard to disagree with the presidents’ proposal to “liberalize” transfer rules, but again, it’s hard to know exactly what that entails from this brief letter. Do they plan on doing away with the restrictions entirely, or merely reducing the number of cases in which a coach has an undue amount of say in where a student-athlete is living the best years of his or her life? We don’t know for sure yet, but at least on the basic principles that the presidents seem to support, this is an issue where even I agree with Cameron. After all, it doesn’t make much sense to call student-athletes amateurs and then impose professional restrictions on what schools they attend.

CM: You’ll get no argument from me there. The NCAA cannot have it both ways. However, I don’t think we’re going to see completely eye-to-eye on this next point, which involves the one-and-done trend in men’s basketball.

Since the NBA raised its age limit to 19, or one year removed from high school graduation, about a decade ago, an increasing number of players have entered the collegiate ranks for one season before jumping ship to the NBA. This pattern evidently concerns the Pac-12 presidents, who may believe that these players are making a mockery of the “student” half of “student-athlete”. Furthermore, one of the underlying motivations behind trying to keep players in college as long as possible is so their labor on the court can continue to be turned into a profit. But that’s beside the point.

My main argument against one-and-done and the presidents’ ridiculous threat to reinstitute freshman ineligibility is this: Neither should exist, because it should be the player’s choice to decide when he wants to enter the league, not the NBA’s or NCAA’s. If they can play, they can play, no matter their age. I’d like to see the NBA do away with its age limit, and let players choose for themselves whether or not they want to enter the draft. The onus is on them, and unfortunately, some will choose unwisely. The NCAA can also toss their crazy idea of freshman ineligibility, because it’s simply unfair to the players; if they can play, let them play.

JB: I agree that freshman ineligibility is an overreaction to the problem at hand, but at the same time, you put a lot of faith in the decision-making ability of 17-year-olds. This comes back to a fundamental disagreement we had in some of our earlier columns: Do we trust high school athletes to make the correct long-term decisions for themselves? I’m worried that the lure of NBA riches might sway a young prospect’s choice away from the NCAA, and in the case of players from disadvantaged backgrounds who need a college education the most in the long run, that unlikely short-term reward will carry even more weight.

Of course, the current one-and-done system fails to address this issue. The player I just described would likely enter the draft after a year anyway — not enough time to get the benefit of a college education — while the NBA’s one-size-fits-all approach would prevent elite prospects who had legitimate shot at a top draft pick from pursuing their deserved opportunities.

I’d feel a lot more comfortable with eliminating one-and-done if there were more educated mentors for graduating high school players who faced that tough decision. Conveniently enough, the only point of the Pac-12 presidents’ letter that we haven’t discussed hits on that very issue. Here’s how they put their recommendation: “Adjust existing restrictions so that student-athletes preparing for the next stage of their careers are not unnecessarily deprived of the advice and counsel of agents and other competent professionals.”

This was a vague statement, but I assume the changes they have in mind eligibility-wise would apply to high school athletes as well. And even though you considered my hesitance to leave it up to the athlete “paternalistic” in an earlier column, I hope you agree that these additional sources of guidance will reduce the number of poor decisions made on the whole. The one thing that still gets me is that low-income athletes would be less able to afford agents, further feeding the problem I just brought up. Any thoughts on that?

CM: I totally agree with you and the presidents that not allowing high school and collegiate athletes to consult with outside parties handicaps their decision-making process and might not enable them to see the whole picture. Like you said, the letter’s vague language doesn’t allow us to know what their precise plans are, but I’m hoping the outcome is freeing up student-athletes to engage with agents and other outside counsel in order to better shape their decision to turn pro or return to school.

On the issue of one-and-done and eliminating the NBA’s age limit, I understand your concerns about young players being unduly influenced by the tantalizing money and fame of the pros. But to take away entirely their ability to make the decision for themselves is an insult to their capacity for critical thinking. Yes, there are some players who, if the age limit is abolished, will ignorantly bypass college, jump into the NBA and flame out. But there are others who will make a wise, calculated decision that the pros are the place for them. It is unfair to strip those individuals of their decision-making ability simply because others won’t do their due diligence. I realize that sounds harsh, but that’s just the way I see it. For now, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu and Cameron Miller at cmiller6 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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  • Mark Miller

    Great discussion gentlemen… keep up the great thinking and writing!

  • Candid One

    Gentlemen, your esoteric discussion appears to overlook an elephant in the closet, the role of state govts. That NLRB result from the Northwestern lawsuit was distinctly limited to private schools. Most of the power sports programs in collegiate sports–in general–are at public schools. In that light, how could you overlook California SB 1525, “Postsecondary Student Athlete Bill of Rights”, signed by Gov. Brown in Sept. 2012. It applies particularly to the big four, UCB, UCLA, USC, and Stanford, as stipulated power programs. Yes, private schools are included.

    In essence, SB 1525 merely admonishes the big four to do what Stanford has been doing anyway but which many schools in other states have been alleged to be lacking.

    Today, Friday, the PAC-12 Presidents group, which submitted the cited letter, has publicly threatened the other conferences (check ESPN) to “go it alone” if they don’t subscribe to the NCAA’s new recommendations.

    The nation’s power sports programs must take this challenge seriously because college sports is in greater jeopardy from governmental interference than many seem to recognize. State governments will have a say, individually, if the general student-athlete
    issue appears to be unaddressed by the NCAA–and/or the schools themselves. That’s the initial darkside of the NLRB-Northwestern ruling for private schools. The bulk of the issue is in the public sphere of chaos.

    Most of your “great thinking” seems rather vacuous in light of the full realities that are current in collegiate sports. Is it untoward to suggest that two undergrads are already too academic? You’ve let the details obscure the big picture? 🙂