The NCAA’s new nine-hour rule showed that the NCAA members are getting serious about football graduation rates. Football became the second sport, after baseball, to get sport–specific academic rules. But as with any rule change in the NCAA, there is always the question of how far the Association is willing to go with a new rule.
Knowing which football players, if any, would be affected by the rule was the first challenge. It appears that Fresno State wide receiver Rashad Evans is the first to be publicly confirmed. Evans is sitting out four games after both the NCAA staff and the Progress-Toward-Degree Waiver Committee denied a progress-toward-degree (PTD) waiver submitted by Fresno State.
Comments from Fresno State officials are not making the case easier to understand. Take this one from Bulldogs head coach Tim DeRuyter:
Rashad did everything that was asked of him to regain his eligibility by NCAA bylaws. … It is disappointing that he is going to miss four of his final games and it is inconceivable that through the NCAA process we could not remedy this situation.
On its face, there is a problem with that statement. If Evans did everything required of him by the bylaws, a PTD waiver would not be necessary. The fact that a waiver had to be filed at all means some bylaw was not met.
The general sentiment was echoed by Fresno State athletic director Thomas Boeh:
Rashad worked hard and completed all summer work asked of him. It is terribly disappointing that during the appeal process discussion appears to have strayed from the spirit and intent and of the original legislation, which was to help ensure that football student-athletes continue to progress towards an undergraduate degree.
It’s Hard to Determine Exactly Why an Athlete is Academically Ineligible
Due to student privacy laws, guessing about why an athlete is academically ineligible always involves some speculation and reading between the lines. The best guess is that Evans missed the nine-hour rule, and did not get the 27 hours required to erase the four game suspension. Fresno State filed a waiver, rather confidently it seems, based on the fact that Evans will graduate in four and a half years. That is ahead of schedule according to the NCAA’s five–year graduation track.
We know North Carolina State cornerback C.J. Wilson was not a victim of the nine–hour rule because NC State head coach Tom O’Brien explained the situation. C.J. Wilson failed to pass the six-hour rule in the Spring 2012 semester. NC State then filed a PTD waiver which was approved, but with a four—game suspension.
The Evans and Wilson cases are different but both highlight the fact that the NCAA is serious about the nine-hour rule. It is not designed to be a sort of soft requirement that can be erased by showing general progress. There is a specific requirement, a specific penalty, and a specific method for eliminating or easing that penalty. As Evans and Fresno State learned, asking for another way out is highly unlikely to be successful. The only waivers of the nine-hour rule that will be approved are when a football player suffers a hardship that causes him to miss the nine hours in the fall or prevents him from getting 27 hours to avoid the suspension.
Wilson’s case shows the reach of the nine-hour rule will go beyond the bylaw itself. The bylaw introduces the idea that even if a student-athlete is otherwise eligible, failing to meet an academic requirement will cause an athlete to miss some portion of the football season. PTD waivers, where an athlete should be academically ineligible but has his eligibility restored by the NCAA, are likely to follow this same pattern. I would guess that most PTD waivers for football players will include a two–four game suspension in the future.
Two Larger Questions Remain
First, if a PTD waiver now means not giving a football player back his full eligibility, will that mean more waivers granted? The fact that the student-athlete still suffers a consequence for failing to meet academic requirements could lead the NCAA to be more forgiving. And second, will this extend to other sports?
Both of those will depend on the results of the nine-hour rule. If it proves to increase APR scores and graduation rates, expect the concept to spread to other sports. On the heels of improvement in baseball APRs, it will likely be a victory for sport-specific academic requirements, with men’s and women’s basketball next in line. But if it does not, we can expect another round of questions about how to improve football academics.