Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Money Ball

It’s all about the money.

The NCAA crowned its national champion in football with the officially unofficial BCS Championship game. It’s unofficial because at the formerly anointed Division I-a level, bowls are not formally part of the NCAA season.

During bowl season we hear a lot of talk about student athletes. It’s designed to make us feel good about what college football represents. The NCAA would have us believe that these young men are playing football for the love of the game while they better themselves through a well-rounded college education. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Nothing typifies a good thing gone bad like the two teams in the BCS Championship Game. While both Louisiana State University and The Ohio State University both excel on the field both programs leave quite a bit to be desired in the class room. An astonishing number of athletes spend more than four years on campus and yet still fail to obtain a degree and those who graduate seldom do so in a curriculum of any value. Look through the roster of either team and you’ll see a lot of players majoring in things that seem rather vague and quite impractical.

To be fair, successful programs such as Ohio State attract players who are destined to play in the NFL and many choose to leave early. While fans and educators often lament the early departure it’s hard to fault the players for being lured away. They simply want to get paid for their vocation.

You see, once you get to the collegiate level football isn’t always fun. Players are required to juggle a full academic schedule, for whatever its worth, with a full athletic schedule. Officially coaches are limited to the number of hours they can require the so-called student athletes to focus on football but unofficially the players are coerced into participating in voluntary practices and film study sessions led by team captains who report directly to the coaching staff. Even at the high school level athletes know that the term voluntary always comes with quotation marks around it.

Unlike high school, there’s money to be made at the collegiate level. Ohio State generates enough revenue to make a lot of professional franchises jealous and a big reason for the tidy profit is that the players don’t draw salaries. Like the NFL, the NCAA inks hefty television contracts and locally schools are able to negotiate radio rights. Endorsements and sponsorships roll in every year but the players take the field for free. Some equate the scholarship to a salary but when you consider the revenue generated by the NCAA a scholarship is hardly fair compensation.

That’s why the biggest and best programs cheat, and the NCAA lets them. USC encountered a shallow puddle of tepid water when stories of Reggie Bush’s financial arrangements surfaced. Officially the NCAA is investigating but anybody who has followed these investigations knows that findings aren’t always objective and the crimes are often molded to fit the punishment. The NCAA doesn’t want to disrupt its cash flow by putting the screws to a consistently profitable program and USC is the cornerstone of the NCAA’s western market. Don’t count on USC to receive much more than a firm slap on the wrist if anything.

The NCAA gave Ohio State the wink and nudge routine when Maurice Clarett encountered some trouble. Even though the paper trail led right up to Jim Tressel’s office, Ohio State was able to demonstrate plausible deniability and Clarett shouldered the blame for any and all wrong doing. Even though there were credible allegations that Clarett cheated in several classes and was violating NCAA rules when the Buckeyes beat Miami for the 2002 BCS Championship, the NCAA didn’t issue any sanctions that jeopardized the season. Was that because Ohio State was clean, or was it because Ohio State generates millions of dollars in profits for the NCAA?

Tressel, by the way, is no stranger to NCAA infractions. While coaching the Youngstown State Penguins, where he won four Division I-aa national titles, Tressel was part of a pay-to-play scandal. YSU was slapped with a minor sanction for failure to maintain institutional control over certain aspects of the program but other allegations went unexamined. The NCAA did enough to sustain the appearance of propriety.

Tressel’s not alone. Scandals have plagued big programs around the country. Bobby Bowden is notorious for looking the other way, Barry Switzer was effectively run out of the college ranks for blatantly paying his players. Dennis Erickson’s Miami teams were rife with controversy but only the most outlandish violations draw meaningful sanctions from the NCAA. It’s when schools go so far as to embarrass the NCAA that the wrath of the NCAA is felt. As long as an effort is made to maintain the image of propriety, the NCAA will skew its investigations to implicate the players and not the program.

The NCAA is a powerful monopoly. It has conspired with the NFL to prohibit players from pursuing a professional football career until they are at least three seasons removed from their graduations. While the NFL doesn’t officially require players to play three years of college football, what other choice is there?

And choice is the last thing college players have. Once a player commits to a particular school transferring to a more favorable setting is difficult. The NCAA discourages players from transferring by requiring them to sit out a full season. Some provisions make it impossible for a player to pick up a scholarship from another program. On one hand, this discourages players from behaving irrationally and transferring every time they have a problem but the NCAA doesn’t make any distinction in the reasons for transferring. The junior running back that lost his starting job to the next Barry Sanders? The pocket passer who saw the coaches who recruited him fired in favor of some yahoo with a spread offense? The linebacker who was just told to gain 50 pounds and play tackle? Too bad.

Of course the NCAA doesn’t have a problem with coaches who can’t keep commitments. Rich Rodriguez is in good standing in spite of lying about his flirtations with Michigan and then refusing to coach his team in the Fiesta Bowl. Bobby Petrino left the Louisville Cardinals in lurch to pursue an NFL job with the Falcons. Then he left the Falcons high and dry to take over the Arkansas job. If the NCAA is going to allow guys who demonstrate a track record of greed and dishonestly to continue coaching why should the players be restricted in their options. A regular student can transfer at will without penalty. A student who participates in a NCAA sanctioned sport can transfer without restriction but a football player under scholarship has to jump through hoops and sit out a year. Why?

Money. The NCAA knows that an unfettered transfer process would make it impossible for bigger programs to sit on talented players. When Troy Smith won his Heisman trophy his backup was a blue chip recruit who was considered one of the top quarterback prospects in the country. Justin Zwick patiently sat on the bench waiting for his turn and lost the starting job to Smith. The rest is history…much like Zwick’s career. If Zwick could have transferred without penalty to another Division I-a program he might have polished his game in system better suited to his skills and developed into an NFL quarterback. In the end, Zwick stayed put and faded into obscurity but you can bet Ohio State felt pretty good about having a fifth year senior riding the pine behind their star player.

And that’s not Ohio State’s fault. As an Ohio resident and a Buckeye fan I watched Zwick’s career up close. He threw a nice looking ball and had the physical attributes NFL scouts love. Maybe he was missing some of the intangibles or maybe he was mired in a program that doesn’t know how to develop great quarterbacks. Troy Smith might have won the Heisman, but he’s got a long road ahead of him in the NFL and Ohio State isn’t known for producing great signal callers at the next level.

The fact of the matter is that the last thing the NCAA cares about is the student athlete. Everything is in the best interest of money. And the players don’t see a dime. At least not officially.

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