Sunday, December 5, 2010

The NCAA Credibility Problem

Last night's USC-UCLA football game, the annual cross-town rivalry game here in Los Angeles, was the final game of the year for both schools. For UCLA, it was because the defeat by the vastly superior institution once again (no author bias involved) concluded a 4-8 season, which is not good enough for a bowl game. But for USC, it was because the school is serving the first of a two-year ban on bowl game appearances imposed by the NCAA as punishment for violation of various rules back in 2004 and 2005.

College football is part of the lifeblood of America because so many of us are emotionally connected to the universities we attended or for which we have some special affection. Unlike the high-paid world of the NFL, college football is played by amateurs of all sorts of skilled levels -- some will go on to be superstars at the professional level, others will give it a shot at pro sports and not succeed, while most will go on to lifelong careers as sales managers, doctors, engineers and teachers. But for a few hours every Saturday in the fall of the year, they're all part of games that ignite passions in every town from coast to coast.

Unfortunately, there is a major credibility problem that exists with the NCAA, the governing body for college athletics. Well, actually, there are a few credibility problems with the NCAA, including the puzzling BCS system for identifying a national champion in college football and the inconsistent policies over the years of what actions taken by a student cause him/her to forfeit their college eligibility.

But the credibility problem to which I refer has to do with the way that the NCAA hands out sanctions for rules infractions when it comes to college football.

According to NCAA Legislative Services, the NCAA has issued 237 penalties for major infractions on a total of 151 Division I colleges as of June 2010. The fundamental problem is that -- in most cases -- these sanctions are being imposed on universities well after the violations have taken place and therefore result in a peculiar situation where the individuals who suffer from the penalties are those who are unlikely to have had anything to do with the violations in the first place.

In USC's case, those violations revolved around the misconduct of star running back Reggie Bush, who received lavish gifts from two sports marketers who were hoping to sign Bush on as a client of their new firm. The agents paid for hotel stays, limousine rides, new suits, and even a rent-free house for Bush's family in San Diego. That clearly violated NCAA rules and the university was punished.

But the distressing fact is the dichotomy here: the USC program was dealt a major blow and the kids who committed to pay football for the Trojans were precluded from realizing their dreams for two years, but Bush himself went on to riches in the NFL and the slimy agents (who did not land their dream client and quickly sought to exact revenge by leaking the details of what they had done) avoided any repercussions whatsoever.

An analogy would be if your family was hit with a large federal excise tax because a relative of yours had evaded paying his taxes, aided and abetted by a crooked accountant or cheating lawyer. No, it's worse than that -- because most tax evaders are eventually caught and penalized. In the case of NCAA sanctions, the person who was guilty of breaking rules typically avoids any penalties himself, as do the agents or other participants in the scheme.

This is not a revelation, of course. Most of us have observed this unfair situation for a long time, where the rule breakers move on to greener pastures and the innocents pay the price for their misconduct. In response, all Division I schools have put in place aggressive educational programs for their students and hired compliance officers tasked with doing everything possible to ensure that their students reject appeals by agents or boosters and stay within the rules.

But with the proliferation of football agents in the past two decades and the explosion of money to be had in the NFL, it seems to me that the problem has now become just too enormous to be self-policed by the schools themselves. We can no longer expect them to teach the rules to their kids and hope that third parties will play nice. In order for the NCAA to regain its credibility in the enforcement of its rules, it must be able to put in place serious and meaningful punishments on any third parties who are involved in paying kids or their families while they are college-eligible athletes.

Why hasn't this been done before? Simply because sports agents and related service providers are licensed by the professional sports organizations and therefore beyond the scope of authority of the NCAA. So, in my view, the NCAA needs to enter into an agreement with the NFL, requiring anyone who wants to represent an NFL player in a contract negotiation with a pro team to also be licensed by the NCAA. If that agent or marketer is guilty of violating NCAA rules, then the NCAA would be able to suspend the agent's license or assess other sanctions -- all the way up to their termination as agents to professional football players. This regulatory regime would put in place serious repercussions for third parties who enable NCAA rules violations by 19 year-old kids who have stars in their eyes.

Of course, this leaves one more major issue to police. The NCAA still needs to put in place a system whereby they are able to punish players or coaches who break NCAA rules at one program and then go on to the NFL or perhaps even to another NCAA program. This change would likely be more difficult to put in place since it would require the cooperation of NFL franchises -- for-profit businesses that are unlikely to have any moral outrage about the NCAA's credibility problem when it comes to the imposition of sanctions -- but in theory it should be fairly simple to make sure that coaches and players who break rules are held accountable for those violations, regardless of the school to which they transfer.

College football is a home-grown American experience that is shared by millions of us on crisp autumn Saturdays when we set aside our daily life challenges and cheer like crazy for the universities that have become part of who we are; our school colors are an outward symbol of what has taken root inside of us. We love college football because it is played by students, some of whom are highly skilled and others who are playing the game as a diversion from the academic schedule that will prepare them to be our nation's next great musicians, educators, road builders and captains of industry. We don't want them to become professionals, which is why we appreciate the role and importance of the NCAA as a governing body.

But the NCAA lacks credibility when it imposes major penalties on innocent kids who never even met the multi-millionaire who broke the rules in the first place -- while the superstar who took the money and the agents who supplied it all skate away without so much as a slap on the hand.

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