Student athlete time demands: Part 3 - The lost keys

When thinking about reducing student athlete time demands, I am reminded of the story of the drunk looking for lost keys under a lamp post.  A police officer stops to help him and asks if this is where he lost them.  The man says "no." The officer, confused, asks him why he's looking there if that isn't where he lost them.  The man says "because this is where the light is."

Early discussions about student athlete time demands have primarily focused on shaving some hours or days from the schedule.  This is where the light is shining.  But the fundamental causes of time commitments are structural - conferences with poor geographic proximity; televised games played seemingly at any time, date and place; schedules that continue to expand and start earlier; and rules that are contorted through numerous exemptions to fit whatever new scheduling concept emerges to provide more television content or unique match-ups at a neutral site (because no one wants to schedule a true road contest.)  The result is student athlete commitments have exploded over the past two decades.

Most coaches follow Parkinson's Law which states "Work expands to fill the amount of time you have available for its completion."  In a coaching and administrative reward structure that is heavily weighted towards winning, a mandated day off and a 20 hours per week athletic activity limit are no longer sufficient to address what everyone knows: student athletes are spending more time than ever on athletics.

Modest rule changes outlined in part two of this series that return a few hours and a couple of weeks each year to student athletes can be helpful but more meaningful changes are needed, and will be even more difficult for coaches, administrators, and even the athletes themselves to embrace. These changes have the best chance of restoring balance to the non-athletic side of the student athlete experience because they will address decades of unrelenting athletic expansion.  These areas include:
  • Reduce the number of contests in all sports by 10%.  Baseball and softball could go from 56 to 50 games; soccer would reduce from 20 to 18 games; swimming would be reduced from 20 dates of competition to 18; tennis would move from 25 to 22 dates; track and field would move from 18 dates to 16; volleyball would move from 28 dates of competition to 26.  This pattern would occur across all sports. Many coaches and athletes will resist such a change.  Indeed contests are one of the best parts of the athletic experience.  If competition is the principle of the athletic time commitment, then preparation and travel related to the contests are the compound interest that is impossible to pay down. The number of games that are packed into a season increases the intensity of the experience, increases missed class time and dilutes the educational experience.  
If you are not convinced reducing games is possible, consider the following example - John Wooden's UCLA basketball teams that won 10 national championships in 12 years never played more than 31 games in any season, including all post season contests.   Today, the number of games played by the basketball championship participants regularly exceeds 40 games - a 33% increase. Wooden's teams are no less revered, the lessons learned are no less compelling and the men who played for him received an incredible education because of who Coach Wooden was, but also because they could experience other aspects of college beyond Pauley Pavilion.
  • In the sport of football, reduce the schedule by one game.  As recently as the early 2000's and in nearly every year prior, the FBS national champion was crowned playing 12 or fewer games including a bowl game.  In 2014 and 2015 the national champions played 15 contests, a 25% increase.  Obviously money and television are the driving factors in this expansion.  But at a time when concussion concerns are at an all-time high, can a 25% increase in the number of contests from a little more than a decade ago be justified? (There is no question it can be rationalized.) In addition, the "Spring Game" has turned into a 16th contest with large crowds on many campuses and preparation expectations only somewhat less than during the regular season. Further, it is now permissible to take one of the windows of time that student athletes could realistically look forward to - spring BREAK - and mandate countable athletic activity as Michigan will do this year during a team training trip to Florida.  Reducing the number of football games is unlikely to happen but if planned well into the future (five to ten years?) it could be accomplished and budgeted for appropriately.  
  • Require meaningful regular season performance in all sports in order to be eligible for post-season play.   A conference's worst teams shouldn't have an opportunity to win a tournament championship and a trip to the NCAA's.  Unfortunately, the regular season for many sports has become largely meaningless with the sole outcome the establishment of seeds for a three or four day tournament.  Conferences should evaluate the number of teams in their post season tournament and consider requiring a .500 record. 
  • Sub .500 football teams should not be allowed to go to bowl game.  Ironically, basing bowl participation for sub .500 teams on academic performance (to provide teams for all the bowls) is one notable example of a reward for academic performance.  But the bowl structure has become college athletics' equivalent of everyone getting a ribbon.  The games can't be justified based on revenue opportunities since the schools involved in many bowls lose money.  Just because a bowl has been approved, the NCAA shouldn't be concerned about a bowl not being played because there aren't enough teams with .500 records - an incredibly low threshold.  Bowls are business ventures and television exposure opportunities and they shouldn't be guaranteed to be profitable or have participants that aren't post-season worthy.  
  • Reduce or eliminate competition in non-traditional seasons.  Teams that have traditional fall or spring seasons should evaluate whether competition in the non-traditional season is appropriate and the number of contests should be very limited.  Clearly there are athletic benefits.  But there are also costs in student athlete time and institutional finances.  
  • Evaluate whether it is more appropriate to count competition opportunities by the number of games played or dates of competition.  This is an area that has significant impact on student athlete time demands, and is easily manipulated when the competition day only accounts for three of the countable 20 hours. Consider the sports of tennis and volleyball.  Both sports frequently engage in multiple competitions in a day and these commitments can easily create days of 8+ hours of athletic commitment.  Any sport that uses dates of competition is likely engaging in NCAA permissible, but significantly inaccurate, accounting of hours on that date of competition.  
  • Consider using a date of competition AND contest limitation counting method. Limiting the number of permissible contests and the number of days in which they can occur could provide a significant reduction.  For example, baseball and softball are currently permitted to play 56 games, which can occur across 56 days.  Adding a dates of competition limitation (for example 48 dates) would allow coaches the opportunity to evaluate whether playing a double-header, which is common in the sport, would be desirable in order to reach the maximum permissible number of contests.  The result in this case could be 8 additional days on campus without almost no effort.  Similar reductions could be found in other sports and have little impact on the number of contests played. 
  • Examine the length of every season.  There was a time when football didn't start competition until after Labor Day and basketball didn't start competing until after Thanksgiving.  The traditional start of basketball practice was October 15, until a plan was devised to allow coaches the same number of days spread out over a longer period of time in order to start in September. The concept was sold on reducing student athlete impact.  Instead it does the opposite, making the season longer, increasing the pressure to perform at an "in-season" level of effort earlier, and reducing the time available to realistically pursue other endeavors. 
  • Establish travel squad limits.  Potentially a way to reduce time demands for those who aren't going to see competition. Although unpopular, they can work if adopted by all schools so that there are no disadvantages competitively.  The NCAA and some conferences already do this as a cost containment measure at championship events.  If it can occur in a championship environment, it can certainly be done in the regular season. 
  • Consider measuring and regulating time commitments over a longer period of time. Twenty hours of engagement in a single week is arbitrary.  Looking at the time demands on a monthly or season long basis would require better planning by coaches and an understanding that time used now may not be available later as teams approach their season long maximum and possible post season play.  
  • Eliminate the ability to travel outside the local geography for practice purposes.  Practice should be an educational and teaching environment instead of a booster engagement or recruiting opportunity.  Taking student athletes on the road for practice is the athletic equivalent of holding class on the quad when the weather turns nice - providing great pictures for the admissions brochure and a nice way to break up the monotony.
All of these ideas will be hard to implement and most will be dismissed as naive or unworkable. But time remains a zero-sum game - an hour used for one purpose cannot be used for another purpose. The benefit of reducing in the areas suggested above is that while simultaneously returning time to student athletes, it keeps teams in each sport on a level playing field because everyone has the same amount of time available to prepare.

In a speech by William Deresiewicz to the graduating class at West Point, he spoke about the disadvantages of an elite education.  It's worth spending 20 minutes to read the transcript as there are many parallels to today's student athlete experience.  College athletics provides access to education and is still a teacher of life and leadership skills.  But these benefits have eroded.  The elite education of college athletics has become sheltered and controlled.  College athletics has become too big to fail in an economic sense with no opportunity for exposure or revenue ignored.  And it is too big to fail from a political standpoint with few presidents or directors of athletics able to withstand anything short of exceptional athletic performance.  Unfortunately this pressure compromises the student experience.

College athletics needs to regain its elite educational aspects and find its lost keys.  They've set a goal to do so by January 2017.  Time will tell whether the search occurs where the light is shining or where the keys were actually lost.