NCAA looking at playing-with-pros rules

Updated: October 20, 2009, 9:07 PM ET
By Tom Farrey | ESPN

Momentum is building to allow coaches in most NCAA sports to recruit some athletes from professional teams, according to the head of an NCAA committee that has proposed the major rule change.

Michael Rogers, chair of the NCAA Division I Amateurism Cabinet, told ESPN that coaches associations have lined up behind his group's recommendation to open college sports to prospects who come up through clubs that include professional athletes, but didn't receive salaries.

It is a move shaped, in part, by the influx of foreigners into college athletic programs.

Currently, athletes can jeopardize their amateur eligibility by merely playing alongside a teammate who received "more than actual and necessary expenses" from that club.

"One athlete professionalizes all of his teammates," said Rogers, a Baylor law school professor. "There's a growing consensus that there is an unfair standard. It needs to be changed, and that's what we're trying to accomplish this year."

The proposal, introduced in June, is under review by the NCAA constituency. Coaches associations are key stakeholders, and those with tennis, volleyball and football have either signaled support or formally registered no concern. So far, only hockey has balked at the proposal, which will be amended to exempt that sport, Rogers said.

If approved, the new rule would go into effect in August 2010.

The treatment of foreign athletes has been an issue primarily in sports that are popular internationally. Unlike the U.S., most countries have no system of elite college or high school sports. Promising athletes are groomed in clubs that sponsor teams all the way from the youth level to the senior level, where expenses and -- sometimes -- salaries are paid. Amateurs often suit up with pros, for a few games or an entire season.

Of the 490 incoming athletes penalized for amateurism violations last year, 434 were foreign students, according to the NCAA. Punishments range from being forced to sit out games to, more rarely, permanent ineligibility. In 2007, basketball players Lucca Staiger of Iowa State and Fabian Boeke of Washington State were sidelined for a year for playing on a German club with two teammates who received benefits in excess of NCAA limits.

But as an "E:60" report shows, the NCAA is also struggling to adequately investigate all foreign prospects. In volleyball, one of the most popular team sports for women globally, many coaches contend that the NCAA has failed to create a level playing field. Instead, they say that by allowing some recruits and rejecting others, despite similar situations, some teams get a leg up in chasing national championships.

"It's an important issue because there are people that are playing in [NCAA sports] that have professionalized themselves," said Terry Liskevych, head women's volleyball coach at Oregon State. "There needs to be one good rule that everybody can live by and is very transparent."

Liskevych, a former U.S. national team coach, brought the issue to the NCAA in 2007 at the urging of fellow coaches. His concerns sharpened last year when the NCAA Eligibility Center, which is tasked with certifying all incoming athletes, stripped one of his recruits, Brecht Gijsbertsen, of all remaining eligibility. A transfer student from Holland, she had played 20 matches with a modest pro team in Germany. Two of her teammates made approximately $10,000 -- a sum the NCAA contended was more than expenses. (Gijsbertsen received housing and $4,700 to defray expenses, not a sum that qualified as a professional salary).

Liskevych notes that elsewhere in the Pacific-10 Conference, University of California senior Hana Cutura played at a higher level in Europe. Before leading the Bears to the Final Four in 2007 and the Elite Eight last year, Cutura was a member of Zagreb Mladost, which won the national title in Croatia in 2006 and advanced to the Champions League, a circuit for the top club teams on the continent with major sponsors and television coverage. Her coach at Mladost, Nenad Komadina, told "E:60" that while Cutura was too young to draw a salary, some of her teammates made as much as $30,000 a year.

Cal officials cleared her to play in 2006 after receiving a letter signed by two Mladost officials -- neither of them Komadina -- stating that no member made more than living expenses. Cutura told "E:60" that she knew that one teammate who had been imported from the Ukraine expected to get paid, but Cutura said, "I honestly didn't care or ask" if she did.

The NCAA declined to address Cutura's case with "E:60." A Cal spokesman said there has been no NCAA investigation into the star outside hitter.

Kevin Lennon, the NCAA official who oversees the Eligibility Center, said the center has brought more consistency to the amateur certification of athletes, which prior to 2007 was handled by individual schools. At the same time, he acknowledges the challenge for his small staff to scrub the backgrounds of athletes who come from a growing number of countries, in 23 sports. "You've got all sorts of countries, all sorts of cities, all sorts of fact situations," he said. "We do the very best we can."

International athletes have long helped NCAA programs chase national championships, from the University of Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon in basketball in the 1980s to University of Arizona golfer Annika Sorenstam in the 1990s. But with the rise of the Internet as a recruiting tool, their numbers have exploded. There are now about 10,000 foreign athletes in Division I, three times as many as there were a decade ago. A few teams -- such as the Baylor women's tennis team -- are made up entirely of foreigners.

The proposed rule change could make more of them eligible for NCAA competition, a development that may not sit well with programs that don't recruit internationally.

"There are a certain number of coaches who say only Americans should get these scholarships," said Bill Walton, head volleyball coach at the University of Houston. "We hear that from some parents, too. They've been paying $6,000 to $10,000 a year for volleyball [training], and feel like their kid should get that scholarship."

Rogers said he is focused on the benefits of reform. By allowing coaches to recruit amateurs who play with professionals, and on teams regarded as professional, the NCAA eligibility staff would no longer have to investigate and verify the status of former teammates.

"We reduce the size of our headaches if we just focus on the prospect," he said.

Tom Farrey is an ESPN correspondent for "E:60." He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com.

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