NCAA needs to stop bending the rules before the system breaks

Terrelle Pryor is one five Ohio State players suspended for the first five games of next season after selling championship rings, jerseys and awards and receiving improper benefits.
Terrelle Pryor is one five Ohio State players suspended for the first five games of next season after selling championship rings, jerseys and awards and receiving improper benefits. (Jay Laprete/associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 12:08 AM

All the NCAA is good for lately is rationalizing. It's certainly not good for promoting rules, or common sense. Prominent football players at large schools are being let off the hook, and not because they're innocent. So why? Perhaps the truth behind the NCAA's lack of enforcement is that the people who govern the sport feel guilty themselves about a system that has become so cash driven and hypocritical?

Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor should not be on the field in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday, because he doesn't belong there. Pryor and four of his teammates sold memorabilia for thousands of dollars in cash, flatly in violation of NCAA rules. Yet these players will be rewarded with free prizes and pedestals on national television because no one has the guts to rule them ineligible.

Any doubt you may have about who really calls the shots in college football is answered by Paul Hoolahan. He's the chief executive of the Sugar Bowl, and he successfully lobbied to have Ohio State's players reinstated for the big game, revealing NCAA rules as a sham. The governing body issued a five-game suspension, only to bow to an appeal from Ohio State to delay the suspensions until next season. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Hoolahan admitted to pressuring Ohio State officials and referred to those of us who might object to this as possessing quaint "Midwestern ethics."

"I made the point that anything that could be done to preserve the integrity of this year's game, we would greatly appreciate it," Hoolahan confessed. "That appeal did not fall on deaf ears, and I'm extremely excited about it, that the Buckeyes are coming in at full strength and with no dilution."

If this is what passes for "integrity" in college football, then the NCAA has lapsed into total fatalism. It's a short step from here to a concession that the NCAA really is nothing more than a farm system for the NFL, and its players are semipros. That's the only conclusion to be read into the NCAA's inaction.

If you intend to stem the tide of corruption in college football, punish it. It's that simple. There's ample evidence to show that tough sentencing works. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State, and his athletic director, Gene Smith, can restore some integrity to the game. All they have to do is the right thing. Declare their players ineligible.

The NCAA is not some faceless, powerless, inert body. It's made up of educators and administrators from the very schools we are talking about, who profess to believe in the NCAA principle of self-policing. Gee is a member of the NCAA presidential taskforce on the future of intercollegiate athletics. Smith has served on the NCAA's management council, committee on infractions, the rules committee, and the executive committee. If the NCAA has become lax and toothless, that's the direct responsibility and fault of members like Gee and Smith. They are the NCAA.

Why have they surrendered their moral authority? The answer seems more complicated than just greed. Gee and Smith are beholden to the bowls for cash payouts, and the Bowl Championship Series money is certainly a pernicious influence. But surely they still care about their schools and reputations, and they aren't totally without clout or character.

Unfortunately, the suspicion is that they buckled because they are afraid they are vulnerable to the charge of player "exploitation." If everyone else is profiting, perhaps we shouldn't blame players for trying to profit, too.

The stream of rationales issued by Ohio State all amount to defensive half-apologies for the athletes, and excuses for their ignorance. They contend that the players weren't properly "educated" about the rules, and they shouldn't be deprived of a bowl appearance because of "the unique opportunity these events provide at the end of a season."

This is similar to the excuses made for Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, whose father tried to solicit $180,000 for his service, yet who also remains eligible. Officials claim that there's no hard evidence that Newton knew about the agenting on his behalf, which frankly strains all credulity. Challenged to explain the ruling, Julie Roe Lach of the NCAA's enforcement division told the Associated Press that the NCAA preferred to "fall on the side of the student-athlete."

There you have it.

These statements make you wonder if the people who govern the game really believe in what they are doing. Do they believe college football is worth policing? Do they believe players are legitimate students, in need of legitimate discipline, or are they just going through a charade? Do they believe there are lessons to be learned on the field as well as the classroom? Do they believe the game has a legitimate place on campus, or is it just a crass promotional vehicle?

Like it or not, the NFL and NBA have become attached to the backsides of universities. That's just the reality of how college athletics have evolved, and it's not going to change. But just because the BCS is a TV-driven fraud doesn't mean we should give up on honorable attempts to reconcile commerce and education, or allow the game to degenerate into a total sewer. The commerce that surrounds division I-A football is not an unmitigated evil; it's just a double-edged sword. It happens to fund countless other non-profit college sports.

The fact is, the "exploitation" argument is a fallacy. So what if football players are exploited while they're in school? So what? So are PhD students. So is every academic drudge who ever did research for a professor. If the university takes a picture of four nice-looking kids walking across the lawn and puts the picture in the prospective students brochure, and enrollment goes up, are the models exploited? What about the cheerleaders in skimpy outfits on the sideline? The musicians in the band?

We're supposed to pity players or excuse them as "exploited" because fans go to their games and watch them on TV? And the proceeds are used to support non-commercial intercollegiate sports, plus enhanced facilities for all students? Cry me a river.

It's difficult to extricate some real educational purpose from the business of college football, but it's doable, if you believe in the athletic scholarship, and the exchange that it represents. When a Cam Newton agrees to play football at Auburn, or a Terrelle Pryor agrees to play for Ohio State, they enter into an agreement with benefits for both parties. The athlete knows he is too small or skinny or young or unpolished to go pro. The university gives him room, board, food, superior coaching, training facilities, national exposure, top-flight competition, abundant resources - plus access to a first-rate education, if he wants it. In exchange, the athlete agrees to abide by the rules. To suggest that this has no value is what's really bent, the deepest hypocrisy of all.

At its most legitimate, college football teaches the guys who play it how to make good decisions under pressure. It teaches them to own up, to account for themselves, and to accept responsibility and not abdicate it. But how on earth are they supposed to learn that when the people in authority are making such bad decisions, such lazy and excuse-making ones?

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