The Detroit Free Press reported that Rich Rodriguez’s Michigan football program blatantly violated the NCAA’s limits on when and how long players may practice:
The University of Michigan football team consistently has violated NCAA rules governing off-season workouts, in-season demands on players and mandatory summer activities under coach Rich Rodriguez, numerous players told the Free Press.
Players on the 2008 and 2009 teams described training and practice sessions that far exceeded limits set by the NCAA, which governs college athletics. The restrictions are designed to protect players’ well-being, ensure adequate study time and prevent schools from gaining an unfair competitive advantage.
The players, who did not want to be identified because they feared repercussions from coaches, said the violations occurred routinely at the direction of Rodriguez’s staff.
“It’s one of those things where you can’t say something,” one current Wolverine said. “If you say something, they’re going to say you’re a lazy person and don’t want to work hard.”
That player was one of six current or former players who gave lengthy, detailed and nearly identical descriptions of the program to the Free Press.
“We know the practice and off-season rules, and we stay within the guidelines,” Rodriguez said in a statement issued Friday to the Free Press. “We follow the rules and have always been completely committed to being compliant with all NCAA rules.”
. . .
The players say they routinely are required to work out or practice many more hours throughout the year than the NCAA allows. They also say members of Rodriguez’s staff have broken rules by monitoring off-season scrimmages.
Rodriguez denies the Free Press’s report, but others are quickly corroborating it. Via twitter, ESPN’s Joe Schad added, “Former Michigan starter tells me he would put in 11-hour days on Sundays (4 hour required is max),” and further that “[a]nother UM player told me he was usually the facility on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The maximum allotment per day is 4 hours.”
Briefly, a word on practice limits. People do not realize it, but major college football teams are allotted less practice time than many high school squads, to say nothing of the 24/7 world of the NFL. In high school, teams have seven-on-seven passing leagues all summer, spring practice, time for two-a-days in the fall, and so on. In college, the NCAA strictly limits when players can work out, when and how long they can use the football facilities, and, most stringently, when coaches can be around. (This partially explains the rise of strength and conditioning coaches, who spend their summers with players and, because they do not focus on football, are allowed greater contact with players in the off-season. Note that I do not claim any great expertise in these matters.)
In any event, the Free Press ominously mentions that “[i]f the NCAA investigates and concludes that U-M willfully and repeatedly broke the rules, the NCAA could find major violations. That could trigger probation, loss of scholarships and loss of practice time.” What penalties, realistically, could Michigan be subject to if the Free Press’s report is ultimately borne out by an investigation (either by the NCAA or done internally)?
While it is true that, if the infractions are proven to be major — and any investigation will no doubt take time — minor infractions would only receive minor penalties. For example, take San Diego State University. In 2003, limits on facility use and practice time were almost completely ignored at SDSU, and, as a result, the program was placed on two-years of probation. More recently, SDSU exceeded the time allotted by the NCAA by about 15-minutes, and therefore voluntarily curtailed its practice time by an hour, broken up in 12-minute chunks over a week.
More drastic was Ball State. The NCAA investigated Ball State, though the scope went beyond just football and into a variety of sports. The NCAA found that BSU’s softball team had “repeatedly exceeded daily and weekly practice hour limitations, failed to give student-athletes a required day off each week from athletically related activities, and conducted individual skill instruction sessions in violation of NCAA rules.” That was not all, however. The NCAA also found that BSU had allowed
89 student-athletes in 10 sports [to] impermissibly obtain a total value of $26,944 in textbooks through the book loan program for scholarship student-athletes. The textbooks were obtained by the student-athletes for classes in which they were not enrolled or for classes in which student-athletes obtained multiple copies of the same book.
These violations resulted in the university exceeding its financial aid limitations in football and men’s tennis for the 2004-05 academic year. Specifically, the football team exceeded its scholarship limit by three (for a total of 88) and men’s tennis exceeded its maximum equivalency limit by .02 (for a total of 4.52).
Because of the extent of this chicanery, the NCAA’s ruling was rather draconian:
Penalties for the violations include placing the university on probation for two years; reducing the number of football and men’s tennis scholarships; and reducing the maximum number of hours per week spent on countable athletically related activities for the softball team.
So what does this mean for Michigan? Hard to say. If you can compute out San Diego State’s 15-minutes of overtime equals one-hour of lost practice time, then that would be significant. But that’s an unlikely punishment. Probation, which sometimes renders a team ineligible to go to any bowl, remains on the table, depending on whether the NCAA is able to confirm what the Free Press and others have said. (And isn’t it disturbing that current players are ratting them out to the media? That does not sound like a happy crew.) No doubt Michigan’s Big 10 rivals, sensing blood in the water, are hoping for lost scholarships, but SDSU’s violations were limited to practice-time issues and it lost no scholarships, whereas Ball State was stripped of some and its violations were more flagrant, invidious, and widespread. But again, bowl ineligibility is a possibility, and would be significant. Finally, the NCAA can always throw around the term “lack of institutional” control if it sees a systematic and deeper problem, words that portend bad things for the school that hears them.
But it is still early: these are just reports; we have nothing definite yet. And even if some players were working out on a Sunday, that alone doesn’t seem like it would equal a “major violation.” The questions are how widespread this was and how much of it flowed from the coaches — did they encourage it? If I were Michigan, I would immediately begin a widespread internal investigation. It might be considered a distraction, but if Michigan can prove to itself that Rodriguez and his staff did nothing wrong — which is what Rodriguez asserted to the Free Press — then all should be well and better to be proactive than wait for a lengthy and time-consuming NCAA investigation. On the other hand, if an internal investigation reveals that this was both real and widespread, then it is better to propose self-imposed sanctions now, rather than find out what heavy-handed punishments the NCAA might cook up on its own. Overall this is not a good thing for the Wolverines. It’s not the end of the world — and the whole thing could blow over – but, on balance, it’s not good.
A final thought: Going into this year, I thought the people who claimed that Rich Rodriguez was already on the hotseat in just his second year at UM were crazy. Now, I am not so sure. He better win some games.
Update: Mgoblog has chimed in, and I generally agree: it’s not good, but we’re not talking about massive penalties or lost scholarships. First, some of the relevant rules:
17.02.13 Voluntary Athletically Related Activities. In order for any athletically related activity to be considered “voluntary,” all of the following conditions must be met: (Adopted: 4/18/01)
(a) The student-athlete must not be required to report back to a coach or other athletics department staff member (e.g., strength coach, trainer, manager) any information related to the activity. In addition, no athletics department staff member who observes the activity (e.g., strength coach, trainer, manager) may report back to the student-athlete’s coach any information related to the activity; [Editor's note: this has not been alleged.]
(b) The activity must be initiated and requested solely by the student-athlete. Neither the institution nor any athletics department staff member may require the student-athlete to participate in the activity at any time.
However, it is permissible for an athletics department staff member to provide information to student-athletes related to available opportunities for participating in voluntary activities (e.g., times when the strength and conditioning coach will be on duty in the weight room or on the track). In addition, for students who have initiated a request to engage in voluntary activities, the institution or an athletics department staff member may assign specific times for student-athletes to use institutional facilities for such purposes and inform the student-athletes of the time in advance; \
(c) The student-athlete’s attendance and participation in the activity (or lack thereof ) may not be recorded for the purposes of reporting such information to coaching staff members or other student-athletes; and [alleged]
(d) The student-athlete may not be subjected to penalty if he or she elects not to participate in the activity. In addition, neither the institution nor any athletics department staff member may provide recognition or incentives (e.g., awards) to a student-athlete based on his or her attendance or performance in the activity. [Former alleged, latter not.]
[Note: Coaching staff members may be present during permissible skill-related instruction pursuant to Bylaws 126.96.36.199.2 and 188.8.131.52.3]. (Revised: 4/29/04 effective 8/1/04)
184.108.40.206.1.1 Noncoaching Activities. Institutional staff members involved in noncoaching activities (e.g., administrative assistants, academic counselors) do not count in the institution’s coaching limitations, provided such individuals are not identified as coaches, do not engage in any on- or off-field coaching activities (e.g., attending meetings involving coaching activities, analyzing video involving the institution’s or an opponent’s team), and are not involved in any off-campus recruitment of prospective student-athletes or scouting of opponents. A noncoaching staff member with sport-specific responsibilities may not participate with or observe student-athletes in the staff member’s sport who are engaged in nonorganized voluntary athletically related activities (e.g., pick-up games). (Adopted: 1/16/93, Revised: 1/10/95, 12/13/05, 4/27/06 effective 8/1/06)
To make sense of that you have to look at what was in fact alleged, which Brian helpfully pulls out:
“It was mandatory,” one player said. “They’d tell you it wasn’t, but it really was. If you didn’t show up, there was punishment. I just felt for the guys that did miss a workout and had to go through the personal hell they would go through.”
In addition, the players cited these practices within the program:
Players spent at least nine hours on football activities on Sundays after games last fall. NCAA rules mandate a daily 4 -hour limit. The Wolverines also exceeded the weekly limit of 20 hours, the athletes said.
Players said members of Rodriguez’s quality-control staff often watched seven-on-seven off-season scrimmages. The non-contact drills, in which an offense runs plays against a defense, are supposed to be voluntary and player-run. They are held at U-M’s football facilities. NCAA rules allow only training staff _ not quality-control staffers _ to attend as a safety precaution. Quality-control staffers provide administrative and other support for the coaches but are not allowed to interact directly with players during games, practices or workouts.
If verified, the quote about punishment would violate blah blah blah subsection D above. What qualifies as a “punishment” in a regularly scheduled S&C workout is unknown. Working out harder?
And if “quality control” staff were observing seven-on-seven, a claim disputed Michigan compliance department spot checks, that would be a violation as well. And the “nine hours” on Sunday would be a violation if the voluntary workouts gray area was breached.
The upshot is: we’ll see. I, like Brian, find it unlikely that Rodriguez and co. were just blowing through the relevant limits on a daily and weekly basis; if not, then things won’t be that bad. If so, then, eh, who knows. Brian also locates a recent example, the NCAA’s punishments for Southeast Missouri State:
From the NCAA report on the matter:
a. During the summer of 2006, members of the men’s basketball coaching staff, including the former head coach, were present during, and in some instances, briefly observed men’s basketball student-athletes’ participation in the team’s strength and conditioning program. Additionally, student-athletes were sometimes required to report to a coach the reason they did not attend a conditioning session.
b. During the summer of 2007, members of the men’s basketball coaching staff, including the former head coach, regularly, but not to the extent of the prior summer, were present during, and in some instances briefly observed, men’s basketball student-athletes’ participation in the team’s strength and conditioning program.
c. During the fall of 2006 (August through October) and spring of 2007 (March through May), members of the men’s basketball coaching staff briefly observed men’s basketball student-athletes’ participation in a few on-campus out-of-season pick-up games, including one occasion in the spring of 2007 (around April 24), when some coaches observed a prospective student-athlete, completing an official paid visit, participate in an on-campus pick-up game with some of the men’s basketball student-athletes.
This was part of a laundry list of other violations, including an impermissible car trip and two separate instances where boosters or coaches paid for school fees or tuition. But what really got SEMO in hot water was the head coach’s response to the investigation; that and the collective malfeasance-lookin’ thing got SEMO the dreaded three words that indicate serious ire on the part of the NCAA:
Other violations include unethical conduct by the former head coach for knowing about the program’s involvement in NCAA violations and providing false and misleading information to the institution and enforcement staff when questioned about his involvement in and knowledge of possible NCAA violations; unethical conduct by the former assistant coach for failing to act in accordance with the generally recognized high standards of honesty and sportsmanship normally associated with the conduct and administration of intercollegiate athletics for his knowing involvement in NCAA violations; and the institution’s failure to monitor the men’s and women’s basketball programs.
All this added up to three years of probation and one scholarship taken away for one year, AKA nothing whatsoever.
Parting shot: Don’t think I’ll have much more to say about this until there’s been an actual investigation. It’s all just hearsay and some vague quotes, though with some evidence that bodes ill. I agree with Brian that this doesn’t sound all that drastic, even if a violation is found. But I will reiterate that it is not good. Whether that is the fact that Michigan’s players are doing the whistle-blowing, or that the accusations amount to Rodriguez and co. being oblivious. Now, maybe they weren’t so oblivious, and Michigan’s compliance officer swears they have done nothing wrong, so maybe this will blow over.
But it is troubling that we’re talking about Michigan‘s football team, which has never been punished for a major violation, and saying things like “yeah well probation and one lost scholarship wouldn’t be a big deal.”