College athletes brace for change with 'time demands' rules

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Rachele Armand transferred from Louisville to Iowa two years ago to continue her soccer career and work on earning a degree in accounting.

When factoring in travel, her sport can consume 30-40 hours each week in the fall. Even though she’s naturally adept at mathematics, her coursework is equally demanding of her time.

Iowa wrestler Nathan Burak aspires to reach the 2020 Olympics and said that whatever time he spends on his sport hasn't prevented him from studying or socializing.

“The amount of school you can miss is crazy. There are times when sleep is definitely lacking, and we do miss out on a lot of social activities. But that’s also what we signed up for,” the senior from Illinois said. “Giving up that stuff to win more games is worth it.”

The NCAA’s five wealthiest conferences, including the Big Ten, are poised to pass new rules that would ease time demands on their athletes. But to those on the front lines, such as Armand, it feels like a solution without a problem.

“We have plenty of time. The biggest thing is just being disciplined, and then a huge thing is actually going to class,” said Nathan Burak, who completed his four-year career as a wrestler at Iowa this winter and carries a 3.83 GPA in health and human physiology. “A lot of people aren’t good at time management or are just lazy. I definitely had enough time to do what I needed to do.”

At January’s NCAA convention, the power-conference schools tabled three potential rules regarding time demands so that they could develop a more comprehensive plan for this winter’s gathering. The Pac-12 recently unveiled its 22-page proposal that includes:

-- “Designated rest days” during the school year, in addition to the weekly days off already required.

-- A mandatory rest period after a team returns from a road trip.

-- Bumping up the number of required days away from a sport during the offseason from two to three each week.

-- Redefining what are considered voluntary athletic activities “to curtail perceived abuses” by coaching staffs.

Every Division I athlete had the chance to participate in a survey last year regarding time-demands issues. Nate Yankovich, who just wrapped up his career as a golfer at Iowa, called it “awesome” that such input was sought. But he also made it clear that whatever rule changes happen would have been unlikely to change the time he spent on his sport.

“I don’t even know what we’re allotted. I’m sure I go over that every week, and that’s my own will,” said Yankovich, who earned a degree in business marketing but aspires to golf professionally. “I just wanted to excel, so I put in extra time on my own.”

Current NCAA rules cap a student’s required athletic activities at 20 hours per week during the season and eight hours outside of it. But everyone involved knows those numbers don’t reflect the actual time devoted to a sport. Travel days can be counted as “off” days, and competitions are considered to last three hours regardless of how long the events actually take.

For wrestlers such as Burak, for example, meets can be a day-long undertaking. Not that that bothered him. His goal is to wrestle in the 2020 Olympics.

“There’s times you can’t go hang out with people because you have to practice,” Burak said. “But that’s life. You’re always going to have responsibilities.”

Athletic administrators acknowledge that forcing students to step away from the gym can be difficult. One proposal is to have a one- to three-week period of inactivity after a season ends to allow for recuperation. When Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was asked whether that would mean shuttering athletic facilities, he said those enforcement details would need to be worked out.

“This is just to address things like making sure student-athletes can find time during their career if they want to pursue an internship, making sure that during their offseasons they have time that is a little more manageable,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said.

“What makes this a tricky topic, however, is student-athletes that want to be the best in their sport. Most of them are saying, ‘Don’t tell me I can’t train. Just find me opportunities where if I want to pursue some other things I can.’ But they don’t want to be locked out of the gym because this is what they’ve grown up loving to do, and they don’t want to be limited in their pursuit.”

Armand said the one idea that she can see merit in is the rest period after a season has concluded, though she would put the length at one week.

“The strain that you threw on your body (during a sports season), I can’t even explain,” Armand said. “I think players could use that whole week, actually, off, and then start going back into conditioning and practicing.”

But would every athlete heed that requirement, or would they find ways to sneak in private workouts? That could be where the idealism meets reality.

“I don’t know how you would (enforce limits on athletic activities),” said Beth Baustian, an Iowa senior from Davenport who was a first-team all-region rower this season. “It took so long to get in this top shape, to be able to be as fast as I could be, so I didn’t want to let it to. I was terrified of not maintaining it.”

Baustian, an exercise science major who is deciding between pursuing a master’s degree in nutritional sciences at Iowa State or attempting an international rowing career, said it was her dedication to rowing that helped give her the discipline to get good grades.

“I feel like the more I had going on, the more commitments, the more practice sessions, the more on top of my school I was. Because there were severe ramifications for me if I didn’t,” Baustian said.

“If I ever was sleep-deprived, it was most likely my own fault. All the necessary pieces were there for me to have a very holistic experience.”

Any time-demands proposals need to be finalized by November in order to be voted on in January. Some new rules are nearly certain to pass.

Then it will be up to the athletes to decide how to work within, or around, them.