If Michigan players complained about spending long hours on football, they were only voicing what many other student-athletes have told the NCAA.
While the Wolverines’ football program confronts allegations it broke NCAA rules, including the 20-hours-per-week limit on practices, the governing body’s own survey data show top-level college football players report spending well over twice that much time per week on athletic activities.
The 2006 survey of 21,000 student-athletes, the NCAA’s first attempt to measure time commitments, attracted little national notice. But it alarmed many educators and administrators when discussed at last year’s NCAA convention.
The most glaring statistic: Football players in major college programs estimated they spent 44.8 hours per week on athletic activities. That was nearly five hours per week more than any other sport, and 10 hours per week more than a majority of sports in the survey.
The student-athletes were reporting how they spent their time, and not necessarily what was formally required by their programs.
But the findings cast doubt on whether the 20-hour limit works when so many student-athletes on their own initiative or under pressure from coaches are doing so much more.
More broadly, the survey confirmed the extent to which top-level college sports especially football have become a full-time job, compatible perhaps with meeting academic requirements but with few of the broader elements of a full college experience, from student clubs to summer internships to study abroad.
“It’s madness,” said John Roush, a former college football player and coach who is now president of Division III Centre College in Kentucky. Roush recalls his own playing days, at Ohio University in the early 1970s, as fabulous, but says the experience was much different by the time his two sons were playing earlier this decade for Duke and Northwestern.
“It had become in fact a job,” said Roush, who contends 20-hour limits are flagrantly violated by most major programs. “It was a job they welcomed, participated in willingly and they had a lot of success. But it owned too much of their experience.”
NCAA rules limit student-athletes to 20 hours per week of “required” and “supervised” practice and training time during the season, and eight hours per week in the offseason. But those terms have been blurred by novelties like “captain’s practices” where attendance isn’t formally required but absences are noted. Other complications include summer weight-room training: Safety rules may require that conditioning staff be present, but how much can they work with athletes before it counts as training?
The Detroit Free Press cited unidentified Michigan players alleging the program regularly exceeded daily and weekly limits. They also alleged quality-control staff watched supposedly voluntary offseason scrimmages that only training staff should have attended.
Coach Rich Rodriguez and the university’s compliance director insist the program followed NCAA rules, and even the Wolverines’ archrival, Ohio State, has leapt to their defense. Buckeyes’ captain Kurt Coleman said he guessed Michigan was following the rules, but at any top program players know the 20 hours of formal requirements aren’t nearly enough.
“You wake up early in the morning, especially at LSU where we set up all our classes in the morning,” said Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson, the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, describing a typical college day. “At noon you get yourself some lunch, then one (o’clock) you’re at the football facilities and you’re watching film until about 2-2:30. By 2:30, you’re on the field until about 6.”
Jackson insisted LSU was careful to follow guidelines, and credits the university with running an “NFL-style program” where “school was first and football wasn’t that far behind it.” As for extra work: “It was up to each individual. If you saw something you wanted to work, hit some extra bags or run some extra laps, each individual was charged with taking care of that.”
Indeed, while the 20-hour rule was adopted in the early 1990s to protect student-athletes’ health and well-being, some of its sharpest critics have been student-athletes themselves. They’ve argued they should be free to train harder as long as they meet academic obligations.
“What makes it difficult is how good these kids want to be,” Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel said this week. “Sometimes you have to chain the doors of the Woody Hayes (football) center, you know, to get them out of there.”
That’s fine for professional athletes but not for young adults who are still students, said Nathan Tublitz, a University of Oregon neuroscientist who co-chairs an alliance of faculty senates pushing academic reform. In the NCAA survey, players in the top division reported spending five hours more per week on football than on academics. And 70 percent of respondents in Division I said they considered themselves more an athlete than a student.
Why football sticks out isn’t fully known, but some elements are clear: time-consuming strength training, film work and the pressure to win that comes with packed stadiums, big television contracts and enormous school pride.
“With the escalation in salaries, the escalation in money involved in these sports, there’s a consequence to that, and that ends up being an escalation in the demands on the athletes,” said Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission, a group pushing college sports reform.
University of Hartford President Walter Harrison, who chairs the NCAA’s committee on academic performance, said in a recent interview that the NCAA survey’s findings had concerned him and prompted a rethinking of how the organization might enforce the 20-hour rule, though no changes have been made yet.
NCAA spokesman Eric Christianson, emphasizing he wasn’t addressing specific cases, said the organization is “troubled when student-athletes lose their choice on how to spend their free time,” which is why it adopted the 20-hour rule. He also said recent reforms have improved the balance between athletics and academics, noting programs with poor Academic Progress Rates can lose even more practice time.
One of the biggest concerns is out-of-season practices and what used to be summer vacation. In the NCAA survey, 70 percent of major college football players said they spent as much time or more in training or competition when they were out of season.
Said Roush, the Centre president: “I bet there’s only a couple, two or three Michigan players, that were even home this summer. That’s ridiculous. It’s a situation out of balance and the NCAA needs to revisit it.”
AP Sports Writers John Marshall in Kansas City, Mo., and Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.w
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