Thursday, December 30, 2004

Bowled Over by the Rules?

I watched parts of both of the early Texas bowl games (Houston and Alamo, respectively) last night, and it was interesting to note that during the Alamo Bowl (which Ohio State won, 33-7), there was almost as much attention given to the latest booster scandal at Ohio State as to the game itself.

Without drowning everything in a huge back-story, here are the main details: Buckeye starting quarterback Troy Smith was suspended for the bowl game after allegations surfaced that he received improper benefits from a booster. This came on the heels of charges by former running back Maurice Clarett that he and others also received improper benefits during the 2002 and 2003 seasons.

A lot of ink and bandwidth have already been spent on the subject of scholarship student-athletes and benefits, and nobody seems to have a clear solution. "Shouldn't the players be allowed to hold a part-time job during the season?" some ask. After all, other scholarship students aren't restricted from doing so. And it sure seems like having to go through the school year without even enough money for a cup of Starbucks on the weekend would make that money envelope from a booster all the more tempting.

Others have noted that college athletics, especially football and basketball, are big business now, and they generate a whole lot of money for the schools, none of which is ever seen by the primary producers of those funds, the athletes themselves. The idea of paying the players has been brought up many times, but would that be a solution? It sure seems like that would be a budget-buster for even the largest of schools once non-revenue sports come into the mix. Even paying minimum wage to the captain of the lacrosse team would be too much for some schools, never mind how much a Heisman-candidate starting quarterback or running back would fetch. And others have noted that the players are already being "paid" with something than many other students don't have--a free college education.

The NCAA has no shortage of rules on the subject--487 pages of them for Division I this year--and many of them are quite confusing at first glance. Student-athletes aren't allowed to use the photocopier in the coaches' office...huh? And here's a good one: it's possible to be professional in one sport and still retain amateur eligibility in another (think of the football players who played minor-league baseball in the off-season), but endorsement opportunities in your pro sport may cost you your eligibility in your amateur one. This happened to Jeremy Bloom, a pro skier who also played football for Colorado. He had the chance to do some modeling work connected with his skiing career, but the NCAA took away his football eligibility anyway.

Some of this stuff doesn't make sense, you say? Probably because you're thinking rationally and logically. But as San Francisco columnist Gwen Knapp notes, start thinking like a cheater and they make a bit more sense. (Think this way and the no-photocopier rule might become clearer, if you can imagine a player suddenly deciding to run his own little Kinko's for profit using school equipment.)

By all accounts, the NCAA has lightened up a bit in recent years; Knapp points out that athletes can now keep their frequent-flyer miles, which was taboo in the past. They are also now allowed to have summer jobs (which used to be prohibited because of the concern that alumni might give them "no-show" jobs for above-average compensation--an issue which figures into the Ohio State difficulties).

I don't pretend to have answers at this point (unlike last year, when I suggested a solution to the BCS mess), but I think I know which questions still need to be raised:
  • Is there a way for student-athletes to hold down a (very much part-time) job during the school year, or is the combination of academics and athletics enough of a burden? (After all, plenty of non-athlete students juggle work and school with other co-curricular activities like music ensembles, drama productions, journalism, etc.)

  • If jobs should not be allowed, then what is the best way for student-athletes to have a little bit of "running-around money" that other students have? A small stipend from the athletic department? How about a closely-supervised "work-study" job on campus?

  • What is the best way for a university to control "rogue" boosters? Even though the rules prohibit booster/athlete contact, it's certainly being done. (The NCAA regulation site is gargantuan--and crashed my computer during the first draft of this post--but a decent distillation of the rules for boosters may be found here.)

  • Is there a fair way to punish a school for infractions without unfairly penalizing future players and coaches who were not involved in the past violations? It sure seems like the coaches and boosters involved should be the ones to bear the brunt of the penalties, but many times, the coach goes on to another job while future generations at their old school lose scholarships, miss bowl games, etc. Here's the extreme example: The NCAA only leveled the "death penalty" once, to SMU in the late '80s. Their football program is still suffering the effects of that penalty today, even though some of the players were not even born when the infractions took place.

Any ideas are welcomed in the comments.

1 comment:

Eric Grubbs said...

I like playing flag football.