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NCAA considering adding 'dead periods' to help students focus on school, president says

COLLEGE PARK — The NCAA may need to mandate new "dead periods" to rein in the time demands on college athletes that increasingly pull them away from the classroom, NCAA president Mark Emmert said Wednesday.

"One of the things that's being very actively discussed right now is the creation — it would have to be sport-by-sport, of course — for serious dead periods," Emmert told reporters following a breakfast speech to members of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce.

Athletes would be forbidden in such periods "from going to the weight room, forbidden from having practice, forbidden from being engaged in any informal practices," Emmert said.

At some universities, the amount of time athletes spend away from campus has increased due to travel requirements caused by conference realignment. Emmert delivered the speech at the alumni center of the University of Maryland, which is moving from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Midwest-based Big Ten in July.

The cost of sending its teams halfway across the country — as far away as Lincoln, Neb. (1,201 miles), and Iowa City, Iowa (905 miles) — was projected by Maryland last year to approximately double its travel budget. The school received the promise of a travel subsidy from the Big Ten in the range of $20 million to $30 million to offset the higher expenses.

But another issue remains: whether athletes can succeed academically if they are spending more time than ever on road trips.

"It's certainly a serious concern for some of the conference realignment," Emmert said. "It's a challenge that all the conference commissioners are working on as they try to create subdivisions inside those conferences to get travel down to where you can get student-athletes back in time for class and get a good night's sleep before they have to go to class the next day. It's concern, but it's something that it looks like there are good solutions. But we'll have to let it play out a little bit longer before we know for sure."

Former U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen, a member of the Board of Regents, said last year that realignment can make it "so difficult for kids to go to school. I think it's an ever-growing trend. This is not just Maryland — this is all these conferences."

Options for helping athletes academically include emphasizing weekend games, playing nonconference games closer to home and avoiding clustering too many road trips together. Maryland has noted that the ACC also presented long road trips for its teams, with opponents such as Miami (1,069 miles) and Florida State (880 miles).

Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson, who attended Emmert's speech Wednesday, said afterward that universities must ensure athletes devote enough time to academics to make maximum use of their scholarships.

"We need to look at the practice time, what's voluntary, what's not voluntary and be realistic and come up with something that's satisfying everybody," Anderson said. "We walk on a fine line right now, and we definitely need to address that and look at it differently than what we're doing now. As we go on, you'll definitely see a change in how student athletes' time is spent pertaining to football or basketball — or whatever sport they're playing — and academics."

The NCAA, which has 1,100 member institutions, limits athletes to 20 hours per week on sports-related activities such as practices, meetings, film sessions and games.

"But we know, of course, that doesn't count all the informal activity that goes on," Emmert said. "When you survey student-athletes, they're putting in more like between 30 and 40 hours. We need something stronger than that [20-hour rule], and these blocked-out time periods may be the solution. So the members are debating that right now."

In his speech, Emmert noted that a top college football player recently said he spent 354 days of the year on his sport. "He had 11 days … when he wasn't doing something for football," said Emmert, who did not name the player.

The speech, focusing on NCAA values, was followed by a question-and-answer session. The audience included local youth and high school coaches, as well as Prince George's County business leaders. Emmert, who has the led NCAA since 2010, received a standing ovation at the beginning and end.

In his speech, Emmert also reiterated his opposition to paying college athletes. He said schools' academic missions would be compromised by such pay. "If you're a football player, you're a football player," he said. "Why would I pay you to [play and go to school]?"

Emmert also said NCAA rules need to be revisited so that it's clearer when to award waivers so transfers don't have to sit out a year at their new school.

"It's become very commonplace now for transfers to put in for hardship waivers of various kinds," he said. "That definition needs to be cinched up a lot. Then you can make the decisions a lot faster."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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