Column: Counting Hours

Unclear NCAA rules make Michigan football investigation tough
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

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.


  1. By Dan Ryan
    September 4, 2009 at 12:24 pm | permalink

    The Michigan fandom’s stance on these stories — “we didn’t do it, but everybody else does it” and “these rules are just too confusing for anybody to question them” — just doesn’t wash.

  2. September 4, 2009 at 2:02 pm | permalink

    I am amused to see the term “student-athlete” used throughout this column. There is a University practice of *never* using just the word “athlete”. It always has to be coupled with “student”. So this column bears the stigmata of University propaganda.

  3. September 4, 2009 at 2:03 pm | permalink

    I think the analogy to the Marching Band is a good one. Band rehearsals are mandatory. Time spent practicing outside of formal rehearsal is voluntary. But if you don’t practice, the others who did will be better than you and they will get a spot in the band and you won’t. So you better practice outside of rehearsal even if it’s not mandatory, if you want to play in the band.

  4. By Sarah
    September 4, 2009 at 2:20 pm | permalink

    I disagree with the band analogy. You can pick up your instrument and practice it in between homework assignments. “Voluntary” practice that takes place far from any sort of book renders the term “student-athlete” an oxymoron.

  5. September 4, 2009 at 4:28 pm | permalink

    The public response to the story has run the gamut, but my goal for this story was to explain what the investigators have to consider to determine if any rules have been broken, based on the NCAA rulebook. Those rules do create gray areas, but I agree with the first reader that that fact does not suggest no one should question them, and “everybody does it” is no defense for any rule, whatever it is. (Just ask your tax adviser.)

    As for the term “student-athlete,” I use it three times, each time in direct reference to NCAA rules. It is actually the NCAA’s term, not the University’s, just as it’s the NCAA’s rulebook, not Michigan’s. When I’m speaking generally in this piece, I never use “student-athlete,” opting instead for “player” all four times.

    -John U. Bacon

  6. By Siri Gottlieb
    September 4, 2009 at 9:13 pm | permalink

    Those rules don’t sound that difficult to understand and apply as far as I’m concerned. Seems to me that voluntary vs mandatory is determined by how the coach designates it BEFOREHAND: if it’s mandatory, everyone must attend and the coach will have “several” strength coaches in the weight room when the players arrive. You don’t just have strength coaches hanging around in case players show up, and decide whether it was mandatory or voluntary after the fact.

    This apologia for slimy practices appears to be an attempt to persuade the reader that the rules are just too “messy,” “tricky,” and “confusing” to expect U of M coaches to understand and correctly apply. Maybe the coaches need some remedial reading classes too.

  7. September 5, 2009 at 12:43 pm | permalink

    I don’t think it’s fair to term this piece as “apologia for slimy practices.”

    John and I have disagreed on more than a few things related to athletics, but what he’s clearly doing here is pointing out that this is a gray area, one that hinges on whether the NCAA will interpret an activity as mandatory or not mandatory. If coaches took attendance at “voluntary” activities and called players to ask why they were absent from such activities, it will be difficult to term them as truly voluntary. If those things didn’t happen, again, it’s a very gray area.

  8. By Charley Sullivan
    September 6, 2009 at 11:18 pm | permalink

    Hey Jim. We miss ya!

    But I must disagree with you. Like all people who’ve coached under the NCAA, I’ve had to take the NCAA rules exams. I disagree that it’s all that gray; the rules about countable hours in the book are, in general, pretty clear in my experience, and where they’re not clear, there are reams and reams of interpretations. A good coach asks the compliance folks about these interpretations before they do something.

    The challenge is that the vast majority of the interpretations, in my reckoning, are there for football and basketball, the two sports where NCAA coaches have routinely pushed the envelope. If there’s a way to get away with something, it’s my colleagues in those two sports (not at Michigan, but in general) who will try to do just that. (Then again, they are also the ones who are under the most pressure and scrutiny about their success.)

    In general, countability is all about who starts something. If a coach is present, if a coach gives the workout a structure without being asked, if a coach checks up on it and who was there or not, or if a coach collects data on it, the activity ceases to be voluntary, even if students were principally in charge of what went on. If an athlete asks for guidance, records the training in their own (private) log and then talks about it, or if they do stuff on their own, including pressuring/guiding their teammates, that’s all good and voluntary. So while it’s seems gray, it’s all about who initiates something, just like dating. Did you ask them out, or did they ask you out?

    For example, we tell our athletes they need a minimum of 600 minutes of rowing training a week to be competitive nationally. In an 8-hour week, that’s 10 hours of training. Now, we’re not an NCAA governed sport on the men’s side at Michigan, but we have followed the general rules, so clearly, there’s a deficit between what we can assign and what they need to do for part of the winter. If the guys want to win (and they do,) they’ll find the other time to put in (and they do), and if they want to be competitive on a competitive squad, they have to, because there are guys who are going to do it. But, we don’t schedule it, don’t tell them what to do, don’t collect the data, and most importantly, don’t ask who was there, or what they did, nor do we select lineups based on that. And it’s just not that hard to get right.

    In the end, coaches have to trust their athletes and build a culture of trust and respect on their teams; and that’s truly what’s at issue here.

    September 7, 2009 at 12:18 am | permalink

    I have to say first that it is great to see this discussion thread play out among folks who are clearly intelligent, rational, and respectful. Many other news sites seem to have primarily rude, irrational, and semi-literate people commenting.

    Second, I have had several “water cooler” conversations about this issue at the office, and the prevailing opinion is none too sympathetic with those who are trying to portray this as a scandal — rather it seems to be that the football players are simply getting a taste of what real life is like.

    My company is in the type of business (small and rapidly growing company, competitive industry), where the only way to be successful is to go the extra mile, and make sure the boss notices. Colleagues who limit their efforts to the minimum requirements are far less likely to be rewarded with promotions, career opportunities, pay raises, etc. compared to colleagues who do these things. As a former boss used to like to say during job interviews: we feature “unlimited casual overtime”.

    People in the business world don’t spend much time fretting about whether a task is “mandatory” or “voluntary” — if it needs to get done, they do it.

  10. By Donald Lyons
    September 7, 2009 at 1:47 pm | permalink

    The point of having limits set by the NCAA is that these are “student athletes,” not employees of a business, as fridgeman seems to think.

    After all, if they were employees, they would be paid, especially since their labor brings millions in revenues to the university.

    Instead, colleges and universities maintain the fiction that these are students and athletes at the sametime. But stories such as the Free Press’ shows where the football players’ responsibilities really are.

    Most won’t earn a dime in the NFL. And while they may be just as smart and capable as any other U-M student — so as to avoid an arguement I wouldn’t sugges anything different –they wouldn’t have had exposure to the same academic options as any other student, potentially limiting their career choices. And that’s too bad.

  11. September 7, 2009 at 3:09 pm | permalink

    Seems to me that it doesn’t matter how complicated the rules are. College coaches, especially head coaches, are very well paid, thank you. For equivalent pay in the non-sports world, they would have to run corporations, handle litigation or life and death operations.

    In all of these professions, there are many shades of gray, and those who are willing to accept the benefits must also be willing to accept the risk for staying on the right side of some very fuzzy lines.

    If a coach doesn’t know the rules he/she isn’t doing their job.

  12. September 8, 2009 at 11:40 am | permalink

    Great to talk with you Charley, and I hope things are going well.

    OK, so you wrote the following:

    “In general, countability is all about who starts something. If a coach is present, if a coach gives the workout a structure without being asked, if a coach checks up on it and who was there or not, or if a coach collects data on it, the activity ceases to be voluntary, even if students were principally in charge of what went on. If an athlete asks for guidance, records the training in their own (private) log and then talks about it, or if they do stuff on their own, including pressuring/guiding their teammates, that’s all good and voluntary. So while it’s seems gray, it’s all about who initiates something, just like dating. Did you ask them out, or did they ask you out?”

    But what about if a coach isn’t present, but a “quality control” person is? What if that “quality control” person is taking attendance? What if the “quality control” persons are calling athletes whenever they miss a voluntary workout and telling them they’re expected to be there?

    Given your example, what if you have the captains or the strength coach tell kids that they won’t make the team unless they put in those extra hours every week?

    Those are areas where I see the gray.

  13. September 8, 2009 at 11:40 am | permalink

    Oh, another great way to get around the rules: What if you’re using student managers to do most of the above and report back to the coaches?