Amateurism: The Post-Mortem

More than four years ago, the NCAA commissioned a group to study the issue of amateurism. Their goal was ambitious: re-define the term how it relates to collegiate athletics. By doing so, the NCAA believed new legislation could erase some inequities and anti-common sense found in the system.

The group’s recommendation came in late 1999. It concluded that amateurism should be defined not based upon monetary advantages — or connections to pro leagues, agents or drafts — but rather based upon whether the action of the prospective student-athlete gave them an actual competitive advantage over other athletes.

It leveled the playing field, they believed, especially between domestic and international student-athletes, and made eligibility determinations a lot simpler and cut and dried.

“We wanted to get away from what you’re labeled, and what things are called, and look to the actual competitive advantage you gained,” says Lisa Dehon, a former assistant district attorney in Kansas who headed the commission.

“If you didn’t gain a competitive advantage, how are you any different than an incoming freshman?”

Three years later, after many delays, consternation and amendments, the conclusive Amateurism legislative package was finally voted on by the NCAA Management Council in June. The results were a watered down package that virtually gutted all of the philosophical aspects of the original recommendation, while leaving in bits and pieces that will do varying amounts of good.

For hockey, this was more or less an anti-climax.

The original sweeping legislation would have had an immense impact on hockey, forcing prep school and USHL players — who often enter college as 19- or 20-year olds — to lose a year of eligibility for each season played after age 18. On the other hand, it also would have allowed 16- and 17-year old major junior players to enter the NCAA with all of their eligibility intact — though whether that was good or bad evenly divided the hockey community.

After a number of productive meetings that left everyone feeling good, a series of hockey-specific amendments were enacted that eliminated all of these concerns, to the point where amateurism de-regulation would have little effect on hockey.

One piece left in, however — that dealing with the draft — does have a direct impact.

In a direct appeal to common sense, the NCAA finally enacted an across-the-board draft rule. It allows student-athletes, prior to enrollment, to be drafted without losing college eligibility. (Baseball already had the rule, and it was a moot point in football.)

When the NHL changed its draft age from 18 to 19, they allowed 18-year olds to “opt-in.” However, by forcing this declaration, the NCAA determined this amounted to a statement of professionalism. As a result, 18-year olds that opted-in and were drafted could no longer play college hockey.

The new legislation allows an 18-year old just entering college hockey, or one going to prep schools or juniors, to opt-in to the NHL Draft without losing eligibility.

Unfortunately, because this is pre-enrollment legislation, 18-year old “true” freshmen already in college still lose eligibility when they opt-in to the draft. The most famous case of this is ex-Boston University goalie Rick DiPietro, who was four days short of the cutoff to be considered 19, and thus had to opt-in to the draft and renounce his collegiate eligibility. He made the right move, especially considering he was taken No. 1 overall in the draft, but still stated a preference for staying in school if he was able to.

“The draft becomes more complicated within the sports,” Dehon says. “[You] almost have to do it on sport-by-sport basis.

“If the hockey community wants it, the [NCAA] Hockey [Committee] could make that recommendation and move it on to the amateurism cabinet for discussion.”

The only other significant part of the package the Management Council approved, allows players to accept prize money prior to entering college. But unlike the original proposal, which would have eliminated all restrictions, the enacted legislations says student-athletes can only accept money not exceeding actual travel costs and other expenses.

“They were being cautious,” says Dehon. “We had some safeguards in there that we didn’t think would be a problem. But if you look at the majority of kids that have problems with accepting prize money, they usually don’t even get enough to cover expenses — so it’s still going to help a lot of kids.

Though the legislation was watered down on the Division I level, Dehon is pleased that it was enacted, almost as a whole, in Division II and III.

“At least we got those divisions to understand what we were doing and to not be afraid of it,” Dehon says. “Division II completely embraced it. Division III comes from a different philosophical place so it took a little bit longer to get them there.

“I think it will benefit Division I to see what’s happening in Division II and III.”

Division II was first on board, as far back as January, 2001.

“D-II was seeing an influx of very mature older international sutdent athletes,” Dehon says. “They were concerned about the incredible competitive advantage those kids were bringing in and wanted to even the playing field for all kids, domestic and foreign.

“D-III, I think, saw that, if D-II does what they do, [D-III] may end up having the problems that D-II had. Divsion II was reactive, and Division III was pro-active. and wanted to make sure they had something fair set up before they had the problem.”

Division I, of course, was on a completely different wavelength, influenced mostly by the powerful basketball community.

“In D-I, you have the added element of money and increased pressures to win and all that,” says Dehon.

While Dehon was proud of her work, she can’t help but be disappointed in the final legislation as a whole. She remembers working so hard on a package that, she believed and still believes, made strong philosophical sense.

“Originally, I wanted them to accept everything. I thought it all worked together and needed to be done,” says Dehon. “But the more I thought about it, the more I was happy they accepted what they did, because if we can keep the door open …”

According to the original philosophy of the proposed new legislation, the particular act of signing a pro contract or taking prize money at an event did not, in and of itself, give you a competitive advantage. The advantage comes in participating at a higher level of competition after graduating high school.

One of the biggest reasons for making this push was the effect of international athletes, who often compete in highly-organized competition well after high school, but don’t fit into the American definition of “professional.” They could come to the U.S. to compete as a 21-year old freshman and retain all eligibility.

The new legislation said, it doesn’t matter whether you were in the NBA, or some foreign league that wasn’t technically professional … you still lose one year of eligibility for each year played after high school. Sign with an agent, enter a draft, play in the NHL, it didn’t matter. Just don’t compete.

“I wanted to treat domestic kids and international kids as closely as we can. You don’t want to be so punitive against our kids — because we know our system — and then international kids slip in under the radar because they just haven’t triggered a certain word.

“I want to look at what they did, and what our domestic kids did, and are they appropriate for our college programs; and if they are, I want them to have the opportunity, and if they aren’t, then there are those professional opportunities out there for them.

“Basketball was difficult. In basketball, you can paint a whole lot of scary ‘What Ifs,’ and it becomes hard to battle ‘What Ifs.'”

If one good thing came out the process, it was the new, unprecedented feel-good atmosphere between the NCAA and the hockey community. Two years ago, there was trepidation by hockey, fearing Dehon’s group would act like a steadfast monolith, unwilling to budge. Dehon was worried the hockey people would just shoot from the hip. But they met at the coach’s convention in Florida, one side prepared and the other side prepared to listen, and came away with a group of satisfying (though, now moot) amendments.

“The hockey community was great. We’re not that scary,” says Dehon with a chuckle.

“If they see pieces of that legislation that make sense for their sport, I think they have a good shot to do it, and I would encourage them to do it.

“And you know what, if they needed help, I’d be more than happy to help them.”