Last Sunday, the Detroit Free Press ran a front-page story on the Michigan football team that created a national stir. The newspaper said Michigan football players exceed the NCAA rules on the amount of time student-athletes can work at their sport. It prompted Michigan to launch an internal investigation, but it leaves some important questions unanswered.
But before I try to answer those questions, I want to tell you in the interest of full disclosure that I teach at the University of Michigan, and I write books about their teams. I’m not involved in this story, but I’m close to the people who are.
The story quotes 10 players, most of them former, and most of them anonymous. They all agree that Michigan football players put in a lot of time and effort. Some boast about it, others complain. But the important thing to understand is what constitutes an NCAA violation, and what doesn’t.
The NCAA needs two pages and 35 bullet points just to cover a small section of this convoluted rule. Boiled down, student-athletes can spend only eight hours a week on their sports during the off-season, and 20 hours a week during the season.
Sounds simple, right?
It is – until you get into what the NCAA calls “countable” hours, and “uncountable” hours. Under “countable” hours the NCAA lists 11 core activities like practice, games and team meetings.
Under “uncountable” hours, they list just about everything else, 16 items total, from stretching and taping to team meals and travel. In other words, the 20 hours a week the NCAA counts is probably about half the actual time student-athletes put in every week.
It’s not an adventure, it’s a job.
It gets even messier when you count mandatory activities, which count, and voluntary ones, which don’t. Weight lifting, for example, is considered mandatory – except when it isn’t.
How can you tell the difference? Good question. If you write for the Michigan Daily or play in the Michigan Marching Band, you probably have to put in extra hours if you want to become the editor-in-chief or the drum major. Does that make it mandatory? Who knows? The NCAA isn’t watching them, of course.
Even voluntary weight lifting can be tricky. If several strength coaches are in the weight room conducting the session, it’s considered mandatory, and it counts. But if only one strength coach is in the weight room, monitoring the players for safety, that’s considered voluntary, and does not count.
The main motive behind these rules is to make sure the student comes before the athlete. In this case, at least, it does not appear to be a problem. The Michigan football team just notched its highest grade point in 20 years. But that will have no bearing on the investigation whatsoever.
Still confused? Well, now you know how the investigators must feel.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.