NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Though it won’t officially be called the “Jim Harbaugh Rule,” the NCAA’s five power conferences passed a measure Friday ending trips such as the one the Michigan football coach took with his team during spring break to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, last March.
As part of a package of new rules designed to create more time off for college athletes, the rule prohibiting off-campus practice during a vacation period outside of a playing season passed 58-22 after a vigorous debate, though the athlete representatives voted against it 11-4.
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel gave an impassioned defense of Michigan’s trip to IMG last season and suggested the rule was proposed to target Harbaugh, who has rankled the SEC and ACC by using unconventional tactics to expand Michigan’s visibility in the recruiting-rich Southeast.
“The rule didn’t get proposed until after we took the football team down to Florida for spring break, so I think you can read into that as you will,” Manuel said. “I wasn’t surprised by the vote, but what I think we all need to look at is the students voted [11-4] to defeat the proposal, so the various students we’re trying to serve, the voice of the students, I think spoke clearly that they would enjoy the opportunity to experience and be able to train off campus during their breaks.”
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey denied that his league’s stance had anything to do with protecting its recruiting territory but rather being consistent with the goal to allow time off such as spring break to be time off.
“Student-athletes told us to stop taking and grabbing more time from them. I said then and I’ll say now it seemed the wrong direction to be using what is a break opportunity for practice,” Sankey said. “It’s as fundamental as that. It wasn’t about one institution or some regional protection. It was very simply if we’re going to sit here and talk about trying to be attentive to time expectations and managing those appropriately for student-athletes, we have to look at that type of out-of-season, off-campus, take-a-trip practice.”
Though the Harbaugh-inspired rule received the most debate, it was just one of several reforms administrators approved after a year of vowing to tackle the issue of time demands for athletes. One of them restricts any athletic activities (aside from competition) between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., making pre-dawn workouts or midnight practices to punish teams a thing of the past. The measure passed unanimously.
Schools also will be required to have one day of no athletic-related activities per week during the season, except during the postseason, and two days away from athletic activities during the offseason. -Additionally, the school must provide a full week off immediately after the season and 14 -additional days off at some point during the academic year in which athletes could participate in voluntary activities. One day off per week during official preseason practice and school holidays (such as winter break) is now mandatory.
The NCAA had been pressed to address those time demands by current athletes and legal pressures. Various ongoing lawsuits against the NCAA and conferences have challenged the notion of amateur athletics. On the other hand, schools don’t want to limit exceptional athletes who want to devote the majority of time to their sports.
“You have competitive young people involved who want to improve,” Sankey said. “A piece of the message when we talk to SEC student-athletes is, ‘I knew what I was getting into. I made a decision to compete at the highest levels and enroll in a great university, receive a great education and don’t limit my ability to achieve.’ We’re trying to find an effective structure that allows people to develop but doesn’t overwhelm them with certain things.”
While there was practically unanimous agreement on how the NCAA accomplished that, the issue of Michigan’s spring-break trip was a sticking point. Northwestern women’s soccer player Nandi Mehta argued that the point of college athletics was to create opportunities and that those kinds of trips were beneficial to students, particularly those who couldn’t afford to see those places otherwise.
Sankey’s counterpoint was that if Michigan wanted to take its football team to Florida, it should be able to without putting on pads and practicing. He said there was a clear difference between Michigan practicing at IMG, for instance, and basketball teams going to Europe for exhibition games.
Manuel, however, said that the legislation missed the point and that if the NCAA wanted to ban football practice during spring break, it should do that rather than limit it to campus. (Football programs typically do not keep their players on campus during spring break, but it isn’t against the rules.)
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