Saturday, July 30, 2011

NCAA Madness

Photo by David Reber
I know, I know.  We’re not in March.  It’s the middle of summer.  But I’m not writing about March Madness.  I’m writing about NCAA rules madness.  For example, most college sports fans have heard of the NCAA rules violations at Ohio State University.  That debacle is just one in a long line of similar debacles bringing shame to college sports and destroying the illusion of the student athlete.  Well, not so fast.  On closer inspection, the problem might be with the rule makers, not the rule breakers.

Let’s start with the Ohio Statescandal.”  This one captivated the media and college sports fans for months.  Legendary and powerful coach Jim Tressel even got suspended for five games, was fined a quarter of a million dollars, and ultimately resigned.  Why?  Because some of his players were receiving improper benefits, and Tressel didn’t rat them out.  What were the benefits?  The players got cash and a discounted price on tattoos in exchange for signing sports memorabilia for local businessmen.  The “scandal” even had a name: “Tattoo-Gate.” 

An entire sports program nearly fell (and still isn’t out of the woods) because players exchanged their own autographs for something of value.  Apparently, playing college sports requires a vow of poverty. 

But I realize that there’s a little more to the Ohio State situation.  (For example, it could be a “cover up is worse than the crime” type of situation.)  And there might even be some good intentions behind a rule that keeps student athletes in poverty while they earn hundreds of millions of dollars for their universities. So let’s take a different example: The University of Nebraska.

Down in Nebraska, the Cornhuskers just got two years of probation and had to pay a $28,000 quasi-fine.  Why?  Because during a four year period, several student athletes in nineteen different sports mistakenly believed that their scholarships included “recommended” textbooks for their classes.  Woops.  It turns out that only “required” textbooks were covered, and some students received an impermissible benefit which was, on average, worth about sixty dollars. 

Two years of probation for that?  There was no intentional wrongdoing, and besides, everyone who has gone to college knows that “recommended” really means “required.”

And similar cases abound.  Consider the University of Oklahoma, which could lose its basketball program for a period of years for two “major” rules violations in the same sport within five years.  The latest violation was committed by an assistant coach who failed to report that a player received money to pay for his high school transcripts and college costs.  Sure, the coach immediately resigned, but getting rid of the rule breaker wasn’t enough.  The Sooners hoops program could be suspended because its previous head coach also committed a “major” rules violation: he made improper phone calls while recruiting. 

And then there’s the University of West Virginia.  The Mountaineers got two years of probation and lost some football scholarships, among other penalties.  Their “crime”?  The NCAA report says it best:  “The football program exceeded coaching staff limitations and conducted impermissible athletically related activities when noncoaching staff members . . . participated in on- and off-field coaching activities. For example, five video graduate assistants monitored or conducted skills-development drills and attended position meetings where they worked directly with coaches. Their participation qualified them as countable coaches and the program therefore exceeded its allowable number of coaches.”

The lesson: Coaches, don’t let your graduate assistants grow up to monitor skills-development drills.

These examples demonstrate several points.  First, college sports probably aren’t nearly as corrupt as the casual fan assumes.  (Ironically, the NCAA's heavy hand might be creating the very reputation it is trying to prevent.)  Second, many of the rules in college sports are oppressive and absurd.  Third, the cost of attempting to comply with these rules is no doubt astronomical.  And fourth, and most important, when rules grow in number and complexity, rules violations will increase dramatically, yet they will be nearly impossible to detect on a consistent basis.  As a result, an even-handed application of the rules becomes impossible.

It just might be time for the NCAA rule makers to go back to the drawing board.

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