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Scholarships and the NCAA Bylaws

There's been a lot of talk lately about Alabama's scholarship situation. Virtually all of it relies on un-sourced guesstimates of how many scholarships the Tide is obligated (or "obligated") to give out this coming season, and there is much concern (mostly feigned) about how how Coach Saban is going to get the team under the NCAA-mandated 85 player cap.

In a thread on the most recent Tide player to seek greener pastures, commenter TheRedTideConsumes penned this comment. It references an NCAA Bylaw which mandates the date by which a team has to know who is and isn't getting a scholarship for the coming year.

When I read that comment it occurred to me that -- even with all of the back-and-forth debate -- I hadn't read the section of the NCAA Handbook on athletic grants-in-aid in (literally) years. Perusing it opened my eyes to a number of things that have been seriously overlooked.

Before we get into deep bylaws nerdery, I want to re-emphasize that the primary problem with the reports and articles about the situation is that we have, quite literally, no idea what's going on in Tuscaloosa and, thanks to lots of student privacy laws, it is unlikely that we ever will unless a former insider decides to pen an expose. That said, there are a lot of neat tid-bits in the rules that are worth working into the discussion on the evils of Nick Saban, Prince of Oversigning Darkness and Kicker of Puppies. 

The first thing that jumped out at me in reading through Section 15 is how much of it is tailored to keeping schools from screwing players. My gut feeling when all of this started last season was that, if this was really a problem, and people were really getting screwed, it is impossible that we wouldn't have heard about it from a scorned former player somewhere along the way. After reading this section, I feel that even more strongly and I can also see why Coaches seem to have kept their noses clean.

For starters, section specifically forbids schools from conditioning aid to prospective student athletes (recruits) on them showing up in good shape. In fact, by my read, once a school accepts a letter of intent, that student is going to get at least a year's worth of scholarship assistance even if he shows up completely unable to participate. (I am unclear as to whether or not that student would then count against the cap -- my guess is that he would.)

The following section,, states that each financial aid recipient has to be given "a written statement of the amount, duration, conditions and terms of the award." In other words: there's no slick-talking going on here. Each player gets it all down in black and white. What's more, the NCAA actually prohibits (in section universities from giving multi-year or partial-year grants except in very limited situations. Universities aren't just allowed to give one year scholarships that can be renewed (or not), they are mandated to operate that way.

There are a number of rules (15.3.4 - related to how and why a scholarship can be reduced or canceled during its term, but none of them are particularly relevant, because in all of those cases, the student still counts against the school's scholarship limit.

Those are just small potatoes, though, there are two rules which really change the landscape of this debate for me.

It's actually an embarrassment that nobody (that I know of) has written about Section when discussing this issue before. When it comes to talking about screwing kids over, this one provides a huge check to balance the free-wheeling, wild west situation that certain bloggers would have you believe exists. Hearing Opportunity. The institution’s regular financial aid authority shall notify the student-athlete in writing of the opportunity for a hearing when institutional financial aid based in any degree on athletics ability is to be reduced or canceled during the period of the award, or is reduced or not renewed for the following academic year. The institution shall have established reasonable procedures for promptly hearing such a request and shall not delegate the responsibility for conducting the hearing to the university’s athletics department or its faculty athletics committee. The written notification of the opportunity for a hearing shall include a copy of the institution’s established policies and procedures for conducting the required hearing, including the deadline by which a student-athlete must request such a hearing. (Revised: 1/9/06 effective 8/1/06, 4/3/07, 4/23/08)

You read that correctly: an athletic department cannot unilaterally cancel (or not renew) a player's scholarship. It requires the thumbs-up from the university's financial aid department. The NCAA is also one step ahead of you clever rule-technicians out there: prohibits members of the athletic department from serving on the hearing committee unless they are a standing member for ALL hearings. This, of course, doesn't rule out conspiracy, but the more layers of complicity you have to add, the less likely it is that something sinister is afoot.

The rule pointed out by TheRedTideConsumes is, it says the following: Institutional Obligation. The renewal of institutional financial aid based in any degree on athletics ability shall be made on or before July 1 prior to the academic year in which it is to be effective. The institution shall promptly notify in writing each student-athlete who received an award the previous academic year and who has eligibility remaining in the sport in which financial aid was awarded the previous academic year (under Bylaw 14.2) whether the grant has been renewed or not renewed for the ensuing academic year. Notification of financial aid renewals and nonrenewals must come from the institution’s regular financial aid authority and not from the institution’s athletics department. (Revised: 1/10/95)

Everyone whose scholarship isn't getting renewed has known that for over two weeks.

In other words: Alabama (and all other schools) are already under the 85-scholarship limit. Under the Bylaws, the school is permitted to reconsider non-renewals and award extra scholarships going forward, but they are only allowed to cancel those scholarships for very specific reasons (all of which are outlined in 15.3.4). Those reasons include: fraud, serious misconduct, and voluntary withdrawal (but in the case of voluntary withdrawal, the scholarship cannot be given to another player).


Those are two pretty big fact-bombs to drop into the conversation: that the university financial aid office has to approve all non-renewals and that non-renewals have to be announced by the university to the players by July 1.

To understand just how meaningful that is, consider this situation: Coach X has 65 returning scholarship athletes. He plans to bring in 25 more. That puts him 5 athletes over the limit, so his plan is to demote 5 of the returning players to walk-on status. Say he waits until the last minute, the players are notified on July 1, and they all request appeal hearings. If even one of the nonrenewals is overturned by the committee, the school is now in a position where they simply cannot comply with NCAA Bylaws. It either has to break its commitment to a recruit, it has to cancel the grant without the blessing of the FA office, or it has to give out more than 85 scholarships.

The obvious solution to this problem is two-fold. First, be very careful about who you choose not to renew and why. This is likely to be primed using the "terms and conditions" outlined in the initial award. For example, the walk-on players granted scholarships were probably told at the outset that theirs would be the first to go if room needed to be made for incoming freshman. Regardless, the case should be so iron-clad that even admins and academics can agree with it.

Second, the team and school should process the nonrenewals as early as possible -- early enough that there is ample time to change the game plan and find a fix to the problem before the July 1 deadline. These things can only help the athlete. If the athlete is told right after signing day (or, hell, right after the previous season) that his scholarship isn't being renewed, he has a chance to appeal. He has a chance to re-evaluate his performance, ability, and spot in the hierarchy. He has a chance to shop around to other schools for a transfer.

I'm not so naive as to believe that these facts will keep our rival's bloggers from wringing their hands about how terrible Nick $atan is, but it is further evidence that the malice and wrong-doing that some folks swear must exist probably isn't there at all.