INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – The NCAA wants university officials and student-athletes to focus on recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina rather than worry about infractions, schedule changes or travel restrictions.

To help, college athletics’ governing body may temporarily adjust some of its most restrictive rules.

Steve Mallonee, the NCAA’s managing director for membership services, said Wednesday the NCAA is willing to give athletes and universities more latitude to travel, provide more benefits to athletes’ families and even allow students to compete without attending classes because of the storm that devastated the Gulf Coast.

“Any rule that can negatively impact an institution or the student-athletes, I think we’ll be proactive in,” Mallonee told The Associated Press.

“The message we’d like is that we have a process that can and will be flexible to any of our institutions that are impacted.”

Other potential changes include moving games to different venues, extending seasons, and possibly allowing athletes’ families to stay on campuses.

In past years, schools have postponed or canceled games because of hurricanes and other inclement weather. The NCAA allowed some games to be rescheduled, and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the nation’s college games were postponed – and most were rescheduled.

Still, the NCAA has a reputation for its rigid stances. The 2003 men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were not delayed by the start of the Iraq war, the 1981 NCAA championship was played the night President Reagan was shot and some people have complained the organization is prone to following the letter of its voluminous rule book rather than the intent.

But, the NCAA has never faced anything like this.

Experts predict it could take months for some areas, including New Orleans, to recover. Classes could be canceled – making athletes at those schools ineligible under NCAA rules – while other schools may want to use football stadiums or basketball arenas as relief centers.

That could force games to be canceled or moved.

The NCAA hopes a more flexible approach will give schools an opportunity to help communities, allow athletes to assist family and friends and compete on the playing field.

“The first priority of those schools caught in Katrina’s path is the students, staff and families who have been put in harm’s way,” President Myles Brand said in a statement. “It is too early to say what the exact solutions will be, but the national office will work to accommodate these unique and unfortunate circumstances.”

The impact of the rules changes could be felt from coast to coast.

Mallonee said, if Southern California had a basketball player whose home was in New Orleans, the NCAA might ease some of its travel restrictions to help him get to Los Angeles. Current rules only allow schools to pay for necessary travel to and from school events and limit the timeframe in which they can travel.

“They don’t need to be worrying about whether the situations they’re reacting to violate NCAA rules,” Mallonee said. “We want them to do what they need to do.”

Brand said the organization also would work with conference officials on scheduling and other issues, including qualifying for postseason bowls or tournaments.

Already, Mallonee said he has spoken with officials from the Big 12, Conference USA, Southeastern and Sun Belt. But with phone lines and electricity sparse along the Gulf Coast, Mallonee said he has not yet reached officials from schools such as LSU, Tulane and New Orleans.

What the NCAA wants most, though, is for everyone to understand that games are secondary to helping hurricane victims.

“Right now, we’re focusing our priorities where they should be – on the people in the region,” he said. “We need to make sure we have our priorities right. We’re the NCAA and we deal with it from an athletic perspective. But this is much bigger than that. It puts things in a unique perspective.”

AP-ES-08-31-05 1922EDT

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