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Fixing the Delayed Enrollment Rules

Twice this year, the NCAA has suffered public relations damage because of its delayed enrollment rules. Earlier this year, Steven Rhodes was initially going to sit out the 2013 football season because of some intramural games he played while serving in the Marines. Now, Nathan Harries was in line to lose a season of eligibility for a reason that seems similarly shocking: he played in a church basketball league between serving on a Mormon mission and enrolling at Colgate. [Update: After his case was reconsidered, Harries was ruled to have full eligibility.]

John Gasaway, as he often does, points out the nut of the issue:

Indeed for our purposes the NCAA’s rule would be equally unnecessary if Harries were a skeptical Unitarian who played in a garage band and got straight Cs.

What Gasaway is arguing against is the “good kid” problem: that an athlete deserves a waiver or reinstatement or some other break simply because they are a good kid. Every compliance professional in the country has had this conversation:

Coach: So do you think we can get a waiver for Johnny?

Compliance: What mitigation or documentation does he have?

Coach: Well, you know, he’s just a good kid…

There are two problems with basing decisions on the quality of the kid. First, every kid is a good kid. There are few awful human beings playing college sports. And they “just need a second chance”. Second, the more decisions are based on the ability to argue subjective issues that cannot be documented, the more the quality of the lawyers (a.k.a. compliance professionals) rather than the quality of the case decides who gets approved and who gets denied.

But as Gasaway also notices, the problem, like in the Rhodes case, is that a decision by the NCAA is needed at all. A better delayed competition rule is needed, one that does not tie in competition far from the collegiate level. Here are three possibilities.

Religious and Military Exceptions

Harries and Rhodes are bad examples of the “good kid” problem because they are not just good kids. Both did something which has traditionally been granted a great deal of deference by the NCAA. More than a few NCAA rules, like the five-year clock have no exceptions except for joining the military or going on a religious mission.

Competition during delayed enrollment is another area to which that attitude can be applied. While you are serving on a mission or in the military, you have so much other work to do that any competitive advantaged gained by training or competing would be minimal. There simply is not enough time to play a sport at a level which approaches college sports, especially Division I. Making this an exception, rather than a factor during reinstatement or waivers, keeps the NCAA out of the process and avoids decisions, even temporarily, like those which occurred in the Rhodes and Harries cases.

No Delayed Enrollment Rule

Gasaway sort of argues for this, but includes one word which stops short of the logical conclusion:

Harries should be free to play in a church league or any other recreational league, because any advantage that he will thereby gain relative to Colgate’s opponents is inconsequential as long as the same opportunity is available to those opponents as well.

The same reasoning could be applied to any level of competition. Everyone has the opportunity to go over to Europe and play as an amateur on the reserve or U23 team of a professional club. Everyone would have the opportunity to play in a post-high school club league that might arise if there was no penalty for delayed enrollment. And right now, everyone has the opportunity to hire a private coach and train or practice with even a professional team indefinitely, so long as they do not appear in an organized contest.

The question is whether the NCAA has an interest in college athletics largely being contested by 18–23 year-olds. The best argument for no delayed enrollment rule would be based on academics. If the NCAA found a correlation between entering college with as little delay as possible after high school, some version of the rule makes sense. But if a 22 year-old freshman is just as likely to graduate as an 18 year-old freshman, it is much harder to justify continuing this restriction in any form.

Determine the Level of Competition

Going back to Gasaway’s proposed solution, it raises but does not answer a critical question: what is recreational? Is it the sports sociology definition that you pay to play recreational sports but pay for watch commercial sports? Does Jay Coakley get a say? Does the level of organization matter more than the level of play, or vice versa?

There are two ways to define this. One is to set a level of competition below which the delayed enrollment rule does not apply. Then it is the simple case of tasking some group in the NCAA’s governance structure (Amateurism Face Finding Committee, Championships/Sport Management Cabinet, and individual sport committees come to mind) with determining what separates competition above or below that level. This makes sense for individual sports, especially those which rank athletes or put them into classes or grades.

The other option is to pick standard features of competitive or elite sports and apply them across the board. In team sports, this can be boiled down to the simple addition of one criteria to the definition of organized competition: is the team selective? If you have to tryout or otherwise qualify and can be cut from the team purely for athletic reasons, it is not recreational. But anyone can join or start an intramural or rec league team.

Assuming the NCAA has a good reason for not allowing indefinite elite competition before starting a collegiate career, a combination of the first and third approaches makes sense. If you are in the military or on a religious mission, no questions are asked about the level of competition. If not, it is up to the student-athlete and institution to show that the league was recreational, not elite. Throw in a more forgiving penalty structure than the automatic loss of a season of eligibility and one-year residency requirement and the NCAA will find itself with much less egg on its face in these cases.

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