In 2011, the NCAA passed its second shot at sport-specific academic reform. On the heels of the baseball academic reform package a few years earlier, the NCAA adopted a new eligibility rule for football. Starting with Fall 2011, football student-athletes would have to earn nine semester hours or eight quarter hours during that term, up from the standard six.
If they failed to do so (or were otherwise ineligible after the fall), they would be ineligible for the first four games of the following season. Like baseball’s full-year eligibility rule, this was designed to make sure that football student-athletes were taking the fall semester just as seriously as the spring. It was also designed to push football players onto a quicker path to graduation, since many leave school immediately after their final season and are only enrolled for 3.5 or 4.5 years.
In Fall 2011, there were undoubtedly many football players who did not pass nine hours. But the proposal really did not make itself known because of any exception in the rule. Student-athletes who fail to pass nine hours in the fall can regain eligibility by passing either 27 semester hours or 40 quarter hours by the start of the following fall. The first time a student-athlete has to use this exception, he can regain full eligibility for all 12 games. Any time after that, he can only regain eligibility for two of the four games he would have missed, and will still be ineligible for the first two games of the season.
When the rule was first applied for the 2012 season, every football student-athlete had their one-time exception available. Many buckled down and likely got their 27 hours through the spring and summer. There probably were some casualties last year, student-athletes who lost their scholarship and were cut late in the process. But no school acknowledged a four-game suspension because of this rule.
Now there are a number of football student-athletes who have used their one-time exception. It is a virtual certainty that some of them will miss the nine-hour rule again. As summer school starts to wind down over the next month, there have to be players who know the best they can do is to only be ineligible for two games rather than four.
We should start to hear about these athletes who will be missing the first two games. If not, it could be possible that the nine-hour rule has worked better than anyone could have imagined and every athlete only needs one break, rather than two or three. But either or both of the following explanations are more likely:
- Schools are keeping the reasons for these suspensions under wraps (easy with FERPA rules); or
- Schools are cutting football players if they are not eligible for every game.
The first is frustrating for fans and media who cover college football, but is more or less harmless. The second is more problematic. In some of these cases, we are talking about a difference of three credits. The football student-athlete who passes six credits in the fall, 12 credits in the spring, and six credits summer is eligible, but misses four games. That same athlete would have been eligible for all four games by passing three more credits in the fall or three more credits in the spring/summer assuming he had his one-time exception available.
A football student-athlete who is eligible for the fall but subject to the two- or four-game suspension is academically eligible, so the NCAA says his scholarship may not be cancelled on the basis of being ineligible. But his scholarship can be nonrenewed for any reason, and this one is more palatable than most. And a school could even cancel a multi-year scholarship or cancel his scholarship midyear if they include the nine-hour rule as a non-athletically related condition in the scholarship agreement.
If we see a rash of scholarship football student-athletes being cut in late-July, along with almost none being suspended, that will be a sign that the proposal has backfired, at least a little bit. Even worse for those players, they will still have to sit out the first two games once they become eligible following their year in residence. That will make them even less attractive on the transfer market.
In an odd way, it will be almost promising if a significant number of football players have to sit out the first two games. It is not utopia, but it shows the proposal has at least some teeth. And it signals that the rule did not go too far and become only a tool used by football coaches to cut dead weight.