NCAA Rules Rob Players of College Opportunity

Phil Disher has been the hero many times playing for South Carolina. In Friday's SEC tournament game, he almost was again, hitting 2 homers and driving in 4 RBIs. The Gamecocks were not winners this day, but Phil Disher was, and has been throughout his Gamecock career. But he may never have gotten to play at the D1 level had the new scholarship rules been in effect when he started school in 2004.

For generations, two things that have given families in financially challenged circumstances hope for their children was a college education or a professional athletic career. The chance to play college baseball gives many young men one of those things, and a chance they might not otherwise get at the second. Now, many high school baseball players like Phil Disher who colleges might have taken a chance on in the past are being denied the chance to attend college at all on a baseball scholarship because of the new rules.

"With the new legislation (Disher) would probably not have made it to the University of South Carolina or any other major division 1 program," South Carolina's Ray Tanner said. The stated goal of the new NCAA legislation was to improve the grades, APR, and graduation rates of college baseball players. The intent of forcing the baseball programs to award at least a quarter scholarship to every player, limit rosters to 27 scholarship players, and 35 players overall may not have been intended to keep student-athletes from playing the game they love, but that is exactly the impact the rule is having.

Tanner talked about his senior catcher and the impact of the new rule on players like him. "He's an old-fashioned player, he's a throwback guy. He wasn't good enough when he came into our program. And he worked, and he was patient, and he made himself better. The new legislation sort of rules that out for the future, and that's a sad part of the new rules. He took advantage of an opportunity, worked extremely hard. He got better, he got stronger, and he became an impact player in this program. I'm extremely proud of him. We talked about it a few days ago. We've been through a lot together. I'm proud of him as a student-athlete, what he's done in the classroom, and the impact that he's made on this program."

NCAA rules for years have limited each Division 1 school to 11.7 scholarships for college baseball. Coaches like Tanner lobbied to have that number raised as part of the new legislation that required that each student-athlete to have a minimum of a quarter scholarship, but the change was not approved in a vote by NCAA members.

The NCAA was trying to solve two vastly different problems at the same time. One problem was that college baseball, unlike college football and basketball, did not penalize players for transferring from one school to another, allowing players to play immediately after a transfer. Football and basketball players are required to sit out a year after transferring before being allowed to play at their new school.

The chairman of the NCAA Baseball Committee that drafted the new rules was Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton, who told the Salt Lake Tribune that, "Quite honestly, some programs in NCAA baseball were running tryout camps. They would sign kids to a $400 Book Scholarship at a $15,000 institution, bring them in the fall and ship them out in the spring. Some coaches saw their responsibility as putting a team on the field more so than how good their academic performance was."

The APR for each baseball team is based on the graduation rate of the student-athletes. A program that allows student-athletes to transfer to other programs without sitting out a year lost a point every time a player transferred and every time a player left (or was dropped) from the program.

However, by restricting how a school allocates those 11.7 scholarships and restricting the number of walk-ons (non-scholarship athletes) a school can have, there is an unintended consequence of denying student-athletes the opportunity to attend college as a baseball player.

Troy University Coach Bobby Pierce told the Montgomery Advertiser, "When you go back to the college APR issue, we all know that when you lose a point in APR due to a kid transferring, it hurts your APR, but what do you do? You make that kid stay in a program when he feels there is a place that's better for him? Why can't an eligible student leave one place and go to another without it costing anybody anything? If you were to look across the country and take retention out of the formula, then college baseball's APR would have shot so far ahead of basketball and football that maybe we wouldn't have had to change the entire landscape of our sport.

"Let's take retention out of the data, and then if we can determine that retention is the problem, then we can address that. If a student-athlete is an eligible player, he should have the right to move to another school if he wishes to do that. I personally disagree with the transfer penalty for any sport."

"People would give them a little bit (of scholarship money) and take a chance on them," Cullman High School Coach Bryan Bowen told the Advertiser, "but they don't take those guys any more. They're definitely more selective. Kids are losing out on the opportunity to play at the next level."

Coaches wanting to re-address the issue during this past winter's NCAA meetings were rebuffed. The Southeastern Conference sponsored a proposal supporting walk-ons' ability to transfer in a sport limited to splitting 11.7 scholarships; however, the proposal failed. But as long as the next generation of players like Phil Disher who want the opportunity to attend college and prove their ability to play baseball at that level are being denied the opportunity to attend college at all, the problem will not go away.

Disher is a soft spoken young man when he is brought before the press. He said Friday, "I'm just glad I got the opportunity to come here, and got the chance to eventually play and work my way into the lineup. I've enjoyed my whole time I've been here in school."

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