In the world of collegiate athletics, the NCAA reigns supreme, governing over thousands of student-athletes and hundreds of institutions all over the nation.
To do this successfully, the NCAA has bylaws, a constitution you could say, that dictates how collegiate athletics will be run. And as in any government, problems arise when its constitution is not followed. But what happens when the governing body bends its own rules?
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the NCAA is doing just that.
In a Sept. 1 press release, NCAA Managing Director of Membership Services Steve Mallonee said, “The effects of this disaster are outside the scope of the intentions of NCAA bylaws … [therefore] the normal application of NCAA rules doesn’t work.”
In order to deal with the effects of the hurricane on member schools on the Gulf Coast, the NCAA broadened guidelines that give schools the ability to make rules decisions. One guideline spelled out in the release gives student-athletes affected by the disaster the right to accept financial assistance from outside sources for expenses related to the disaster. Sources of this assistance may include boosters.
A booster is defined by the NCAA as “a representative of the institution’s athletic interests.” That definition is potentially very broad, and after all, don’t NCAA bylaws state that accepting money or “extra benefit” from a booster is illegal?
“Very much so,” said Temple athletics compliance coordinator Andrew Cardamone, who declined further comment. In the past, student-athletes who accepted anything from boosters were subject to losing their eligibility.
Katrina’s disaster has sparked an amendment of this clause in the bylaws, but the NCAA seems to overlook the repercussions of a broad statement.
Say a student-athlete at an effected institution is contemplating leaving her school so she can compete elsewhere during this season. Under the altered guidelines, a booster could legally provide that athlete with some sort of extra benefit to persuade them to say. The opposite is also true. A school could persuade a student-athlete to leave her current school under the guise of assisting in recovery from Katrina. Saint Joseph’s director of compliance Maureen Shields confirmed these could be real issues.
“It’s almost like the situation with FEMA,” said Shields. “Nobody could have predicted this disaster, but ultimately [the onus] will fall on the NCAA. People will say they should have done this, or done that. They are just addressing immediate concerns right now.”
The NCAA has painted the disaster with a broad brush and has yet to define the gray areas. There are a number of questions neither Cardamone nor Shields could explain when asked for clarification.
For example, how long will athletes be able to accept assistance and not be penalized for it? How far-reaching is the phrase, “affected by the disaster”? After all, the entire country is affected in some way.
How does the NCAA plan to police and protect its athletes from boosters who will use the disaster as a leveraging tool to attract athletes? Will there be some sort of case-by-case determinate for student-athletes that are unsure of how these guidelines will affect them? What about prospective students? These guidelines mention nothing about recruits who have not yet signed letters of intent. Boosters could use these new guidelines to persuade them as well.
Inevitably the effects of these guidelines will be felt and contested by athletes, coaches and institutions years after the Gulf Coast is back to normal. Those claiming the NCAA is addressing immediate concerns assume no one will ask the tough questions until the distant future.
That’s not a solution.
Danielle K. Milner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.