Offseason: Not Offered

As teams increase their practice time during the offseason, athletic administrators grapple with how to balance funds, facilities, and personnel with the wishes of their coaches and student-athletes.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management magazine.

Athletic Management, 13.2, February/March 2001,

During the NCAA Convention in January, Division III delegates made history by passing rules to curtail the proliferation of offseason competition. They are fairly simple: beginning in the fall of 2001, competition during nontraditional seasons will be limited to five weeks and no missed class time will be allowed. In addition, baseball and softball teams will be limited to five contests (which will count against their limit of 45) during this time.

Passing these rules was far from simple, though. It took one re-vote, two conventions, numerous proposals, quite a bit of lobbying, and even more discussion. Debates on the issue ran the gamut from philosophy to budgets, and feelings were strong on all sides.

The arduous process ultimately showed there are no easy solutions to the issue of how much time student-athletes should be involved in their sport during the offseason. And while Division III schools have been at the forefront of the issue, Division II and Division I schools are realizing they may soon be looking for similar solutions.

“There is a lot of ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ in our business,” says Wayne Hogan, Director of Athletics at the University of Montana, “and that’s kind of unfortunate—but it’s a fact of life and it’s never going to go away. The coaches are saying, ‘Look, if they’re doing it down the road, we have to do it too.’ So that mentality is stretching offseason activity right to the limits of what is acceptable and within the rules.”

The effects of these increasingly busy offseasons have slowly mounted through the years and many of today’s collegiate athletic departments are approaching the breaking point. While most coaches insist that to be competitive they need to be on the fields and courts as much as possible during the offseason, the reality is, the resources aren’t always there to support those activities.

“We spend a lot of time talking about offseason activity and monitoring what goes on during the offseason because there’s no doubt it affects our operation,” Hogan says. “There’s not a week that goes by when we don’t talk about the pressure it creates on our staff and facilities.”

Student-Athlete Stress?
For many athletic directors, the first concern with the increased offseason work is how it affects the student-athletes. Most athletic directors report that they rarely hear complaints from student-athletes about excessive offseason work, although requests for more offseason activity are sometimes voiced.

John Ratliff, Athletic Director at Keene State College, says his athletes don’t feel burdened by offseason work. “We’ve gone over the legislative issues with our Student-Athlete Advisory Council about redefining the nontraditional season, doing away with some games, and limiting it to four or five weeks, and they’re unanimously opposed to any reduction to the nontraditional season,” Ratliff says. “In my 20 years in athletic administration, I’ve never had a single student come in and say, ‘We shouldn’t play this week.’”

But an absence of complaints does not always mean all is well. “There are student-athletes who will not tell an administrator there is a problem, because they feel it might affect their relationship with the coach,” says Ken Riley, Director of Athletics at Florida A&M University. “Not too many athletes are going to voluntarily tell you their side of the story. As long as they feel they’re part of the system, they’re going to go along with that system.”

“I think there’s just an accepted philosophy that if you play Division I athletics, it’s a year-round commitment,” Hogan says. “So the student-athletes accept it. They may not like it, but they feel it’s part of the game.”

Since individual student-athletes are hesitant to rock the boat with complaints student-athlete advisory committees can often provide valuable insight. “An open communication channel among the coaches, athletic director, and student-athletes is a must,” says Kerry Gotham, former chair of the NCAA Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), and a member of the golf team during his undergraduate career at Nazareth College. “I think SAACs play a vital role in helping to define the nontraditional season and expectations.

“A single student-athlete, especially a freshman or sophomore, may be very intimidated to express his or her concerns to a coach or AD,” Gotham continues. “The pressure to go along with the others because ‘That's the way things are done around here,’ is great. But an SAAC group empowers student-athletes to voice their concerns and get them up the ladder so that they are heard. The SAAC provides a safe forum to speak one's mind and get the support of others.”

“We tell our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and our captains, ‘If you’re hearing complaints from students, you need to bring it forward to us,’” says Al Bean, Athletic Director at the University of Southern Maine, “‘because we may not know about them if you don’t do that.’”

Whether offseason work really should be “part of the game” is something the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committees have addressed over the past few years. While the Division III SAAC has been outspoken in its support for nontraditional season competition and the recently passed rules, the Division I SAAC has been focusing on how to ensure that “voluntary” offseason workouts are truly the choice of the individual athlete. The committee has proposed that voluntary activities be defined as follows:

• Student-athletes and other athletics personnel may not be required to report back any information relating to the workouts to the coach;

• Workouts only may be initiated and requested by student-athletes;

• No attendance may be recorded;

• No penalties may be rendered for missed workouts;

• An institution may not assign specific times for student-athletes to work out;

• An institution may not provide awards or incentives for attendance or performance.

But rules and definitions won’t solve all the problems. Some athletic directors realize that unspoken pressure from coaches to work hard in the offseason can put student-athletes in a bind. “A coach may say it’s voluntary, but his demeanor and the way he approaches it might make it come across differently,” Riley says. “So the student-athletes may feel there will be a penalty associated with not participating, even though the coach is saying it’s voluntary.”

And the expectations of teammates can hold even more sway. “Let’s say your basketball players all get together at noon every day during the summer,” Hogan says. “There’s 10 to 12 of them and it’s a standard deal. No coaches are there and many times they’re not even in your facility. The question becomes, is that a mandatory deal? Well, it shouldn’t be, but I think they put pressure on each other: ‘You need to be there every day if you’re going to get better and we’re going to get better as a team.’”

“In an ideal world,” Gotham says, “offseason activity wouldn't be mandatory, but student-athletes would be there most of the time when they could. I think coaches are going to push their athletes to work as hard in the nontraditional as the regular season; but there should be an understanding that other commitments—such as more focused effort on academics or another extra-curricular pursuit—may warrant a student-athlete’s attention and that a student-athlete’s dedication to the team should not be questioned.

“What happens some places is coaches attach consequences to not being there and other student-athletes question their peer’s dedication and heart,” he continues. “They don't see it as a time for everyone to simply participate and practice, they see it as a cutthroat try-out. Thus, in some cases, there is burn-out because the demands don't change and the nontraditional is exactly like the regular season.”

And student-athletes feeling that kind of burn-out may express their discontent with actions instead of words. “You can always look to see what the attrition rate is on teams,” Bean says. “If people are leaving the sport at the end of the year, or transferring to other programs on a regular basis, you certainly need to keep your eyes on that.”

Staffing Problems
A second concern with the increase in offseason practices and games is its burden on your staff. Much of the strain falls on the coaches, so most athletics directors feel it’s best to let each coach determine the extent of his or her team’s offseason activity.

“There’s nothing more valuable than the coach being a complete professional and running his or her own program,” says Frank Condino, Athletic Director at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “We don’t micro-manage our coaches in any shape or form.

“If one coach is younger or more energetic than another, or coaching one sport instead of two, then they may have the energy to do some more things during the offseason,” he continues. “And I don’t think it would be right to restrict certain coaches just because others don’t have the time.”

“The way we operate here,” Hogan says, “each sport sets its own philosophical direction toward offseason activity, as long as it’s within the rules and it’s right for the kids.”

The rest of the athletic department staff, though, does not always have that luxury. Most staff members have their plates full with teams competing in their normal season, leaving little time for any others.

Perhaps no area of an athletic department feels the impact of increased offseason activity more than the athletic training room. The proliferation of offseason activity has occurred at the same time reforms in athletic training education have caused departments to rethink their use of student athletic trainers. For many schools, the net result has been an increased demand for athletic trainers accompanied by a decreased supply.

“The biggest issue is the training room,” Ratliff says. “We’re fortunate because we have an athletic training major. We have four certified athletic trainers, since there is an academic component, and we don’t have football. But even with the staff we have, we’re spread thin because once October 15 comes along, we’ve got every sport going at the same time.

“But the one reason we would not do nontraditional seasons is if we couldn’t provide what we need to make sure practices are being handled from a safety standpoint,” Ratliff continues. “I would feel very compromised if I was conducting some practice activity and didn’t have somebody who could respond very quickly to a medical situation.”

It’s also important for everyone—especially athletic directors and athletic trainers—to recognize that the demands for athletic training services do not stop simply because no games or practices appear on the schedule. “What do you do if a basketball player comes into the training room in July with a sprained ankle and says he hurt it playing pickup basketball? Do you treat it? Of course you do,” Hogan says. “But those are sticky issues and we’ve struggled with them. You try to explain to the parents that we didn’t have an athletic trainer there because it wasn’t under our purview. Yet, at the same time, there’s an understanding that in order to play, the kids need to train 12 months a year—even if that means doing it on their own.”

Finding Solutions
Beyond your coaches and athletic trainers, there are other support staff and facilities that can easily become overburdened, not to mention the athletic director’s time in overseeing more activities. So, what are some solutions athletic directors are using to deal with the offseason demands?

The first thing to do, they say, is prioritize and then communicate these priorities to all support staff and schedulers. “We clearly give priority to sports that are in their traditional season,” Hogan explains. “And sometimes that means sports that are outside their traditional season suffer in terms of the attention they receive from the support staffs. Whatever the staff can do to help those nontraditional sports is just a bonus.”

Condino’s staff is also instructed to place inseason teams’ needs first. “The involvement with nontraditional seasons and other sports has to be handled by student help, and we have all our coaches CPR and first aid certified in case no one can be there,” he says.

However, some coaches have a hard time accepting less support than they feel they deserve. “All coaches want what’s best for their program, but some understand better than others,” Condino says. “You simply show them the time restraints and the personnel involved. It’s not magical. I simply tell them, ‘Here’s what we have, here are the primary sports in season, here’s what you’re doing, and here’s what we can cover during those time frames.’”

Sorting out the demand for limited facility space requires a similar approach. “We sit down and figure out a schedule, and then we follow that schedule,” Riley says. “We make sure the teams in season have first priority, and then we work accordingly.”

At Southern Maine, Bean tries to keep demands and staff and facilities somewhat in check by never having more than two sets of seasons in action at once. “We don’t start our spring sports until the second week of September,” he says. “And they have to finish prior to the start of the winter season on October 15. Then we don’t let our fall teams start again until the Sunday weekend in February when the winter seasons are pretty much done.

“Our fall sports coaches are saying to us they’d like to be able to start earlier in the second semester,” Bean adds. “But they have seven or eight weeks to use, and maybe it’s not exactly when they want it, but it’s not a good situation if we allow them to start sooner.”

And as Ratliff learned, it’s best to figure out the offseason needs of any new sports before the teams take the field. “We recently added men’s and women’s lacrosse, and in hindsight it created a real impact on facilities until they could get outside,” Ratliff says. “It’s been a great sport for us, but if I looked at it again, I might have said we needed to wait until we could make sure there was adequate practice time in January and February. At one point they were practicing from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. and we had to stop that because there’s no way you can practice at that time you have an 8 a.m. class.”

What’s Next?
While prioritizing can keep problems at bay, athletic directors do admit that it is a band-aid solution and some suggest that legislative changes may ultimately be needed. Hogan, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if Division I schools begin asking the same questions that Division III has just answered.

“With the financial state of most Division I institutions—I don’t how many of us are breaking even, but it’s not many—we’re all scrambling for dollars and I’m sure the offseason is something that will continue to bubble up,” Hogan says. “I haven’t heard of any groundswell yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Other athletic directors would like to see their conferences start discussing new ideas. “I think offseason work is something that really needs to be talked about, and a lot of time and effort should be put into it in all conferences,” Riley says. “We need to go to the student-athlete advisory boards, get some feedback from them, and seriously look at what they’re saying.

“Also, conferences need to do their own self-study, too, about the issue,” he continues, “because there’s going to be a difference between an economically successful Division I program versus Division I-AA or Division III. What’s equitable and fair at one level may not be equitable and fair at another.”

“It’s not been discussed in any detail yet, but it’s a future topic within our conference,” Condino says. “It’s one that will continue to evolve due to the limitations of budgets and scheduling. We’ll discuss whether or not to regulate it overall as a conference or leave it up to each individual institution, as well as any student-athlete concerns which may arise.”

But some athletic directors are wary of any conference efforts to become more involved in the regulation of offseason activity. “I know it’s done in some conferences,” Bean says, “but I would hate the conference to come to me and say, ‘We don’t want to stretch our staffs out so we should all do away with nontraditional seasons.’ To me, if you don’t want to have them and they don’t work for you, then don’t do them. But if I think they’re valuable for our students and they’re still within the overall guidelines, then I think we should be able to do it.”

“I think it’s good to have this discussion as a conference,” Hogan adds. “I like to know what everyone else is doing and I think it helps us with our policies and guidelines to exchange ideas. But I’m not in favor of a conference office involved in monitoring or setting policy.”

When the discussions are held, budgets will be a factor and so will facilities, but athletic directors agree one area will be considered above all others. “The student-athlete is the over-riding force,” Condino says. “The concern is that you’re doing justice to the student-athletes and that they’re allowed to have a very well-rounded college experience with a good intercollegiate athletic experience. It’s difficult to keep that balance, but that’s the thing you’re always concerned about.”