THE NCAA, PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1

Allow me to start by saying that the NCAA is by no means perfect. With countless calls for reform, mostly involving amateurism and deregulation of a handbook that could be about a hundred pages shorter, the writing is on the wall that a number of people have issues with the current governance. However, this article is not an exploration of how to fix the NCAA’s “problems,” but rather an exposition of a trend that is doing its best to deal fatal blows to the NCAA. This trend is the way in which the media and public opinion portrays the organization, while conveniently neglecting/minimalizing the NCAA’s actual process in its decision-making. This article will attempt to shed light on the other side of the coin.

The NCAA in its current form, for lack of a better word, works. Ignoring any changes that are being called for, the NCAA has a set of rules that it monitors and takes appropriate actions to correct in the event of violations. First, the NCAA is not an evil mad scientist sitting in a castle during a storm cackling at the misfortunes of everyone that its rules affect. The NCAA is a non-profit organization that was originally formed to provide standard rules and regulation to contests where commercialization and human intentions of gaining an unfair advantage were coming into play. Intercollegiate eligibility and distancing from academics were growing concerns that were being abused in efforts to gain the competitive edge. The first step was to move these sports from student to faculty control, in an attempt to have some semblance of regulation. Additionally, the emerging sport of football significantly increased serious injury or death occurrences in intercollegiate sports. The NCAA in its earliest version was primarily a rules-making body, and left governance to the students and faculty. As intercollegiate sports increased in size and popularity, the organization’s role expanded. Thanks to prevalent issues and new developments such as gambling scandals, underhanded recruiting practices, and the allowance of scholarships and financial aid, the NCAA was forced to create more rules to prevent abuses, and began to take over the governance procedures and sanctions as part of their administrative process. At this point (around 1950), we start to see the skeleton of the NCAA as it exists today.

In reality the NCAA is similar to Congress. Each member institution is given a seat at the table and a vote as to how to govern athletic competitions and their relevant rules. So the next time you curse the NCAA, and praise your alma mater, look into how your school voted.

Adopted legislation initially goes through a fairly rigorous approval process with input and feedback (or at least opportunity to do so) from every member institution. Each school gets an exhaustive list of new rules proposals and changes so that they can give their opinions, which likely ranges from “Definitely yes, with this rule our big money school can outdistance smaller competitors for recruits,” to “This is a bad idea, it will come down to the have’s and have-not’s on who can fully utilize this deregulation.”[1]

Those rules that have successfully gone through this process are not meant to harm or handcuff student-athletes. Some rules or NCAA interpretations can clearly be seen as the result of an isolated few specific incidents, and demands for deregulation partly exist because these rules are seen as too specific and overly restrictive. These rules have been enacted for a reason though; somehow and somewhere, some school, recruit, coach, or student-athlete has abused a situation. The NCAA duly monitors those occurrences to make sure either an unfair advantage is not being reaped by the wrongdoing, or the action is within the spirit of the NCAA and its legislative intent.  The great thing about the NCAA process is the ease of trying to appeal or get a waiver for any situation possibly involving an NCAA violation. The unfortunate thing about the NCAA process is how few people know about it or care to comment on it, viewing reports and violations in a bubble where the NCAA must be in the wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I may not always agree with what may be considered a violation, but at the end of the day, the NCAA works with what is reported. A West Coast Conference violation comes to mind: a golfer used campus water and hose to wash her car, and had to repay $20.[2] An extra benefit is basically any benefit not generally afforded to the regular student body. First, if I were monitoring this situation, I would have had a few student-athletes and a few non-student-athletes go perform the exact same action, and if someone said anything to the non-student-athlete, then sure it’s an extra benefit. Otherwise, this is evidence of perhaps overly zealous self-reporting on behalf of the school. Does the NCAA have the time or resources to monitor 400,000+ student-athletes? Absolutely not, therefore they rely on self-reporting from the schools. If the NCAA receives a self-report that lays out a violation on a platter,[3] is it more likely to question the schools’ policies on what they offer student-athletes as opposed to non-student-athletes (in the case of an extra benefit violation), or will it go with what the school says, follow its rules and procedures, and assess the value of the benefit against the student-athlete?

One article claimed the NCAA has bigger fish to fry.[4] First, that implies that the NCAA is out looking for these violations on every campus, which it isn’t. The NCAA doesn’t often arrive on campus for investigations outside of looking into major infractions. Second, what would the NCAA really be worth if it stuck to violations involving unethical conduct or lack of institutional control, ignoring everything more insignificant? One minor infraction may be relatively insignificant, but once that “minor” infraction has occurred ten, or fifty, or one hundred times, suddenly the “minor” infraction becomes a pattern (hundreds of meals provided) that leads to your basic lack of institutional control major violation.

Two other recent cases highlight the media’s neglect when it comes to the NCAA process: a runner initially losing a year of eligibility for participating in a costumed fun run, and Middle Tennesee State’s Marine, Steven Rhodes, who was initially declared ineligible for competing in a military rec league. The key words here are initially. USA Today and ESPN take credit for these stories, with titles of “NCAA runner loses year of eligibility for participating in costumed fun-run,” and “Marine who played at base banned.”[5] In an age where the abbreviation TLDR exists (too long didn’t read), headlines can be particularly damning. ESPN didn’t choose to say, “Marine initially ruled ineligible, likely succeeds on appeal,” which turned out to be the case. USA Today neglected to include the runner’s multiple chances for appeal, barely even mentioning the possibility (and eventual) reinstatement of eligibility.

Kerwin Okoro’s case (a Rutgers transfer) is another instance involving a casualty of not initially meeting an NCAA rule. The NCAA allows for hardship waivers so that a student-athlete may transfer to be closer to home to be with an ailing family member. Okoro’s brother and father had recently passed away, and he was looking to be closer to his family. Technically (and unfortunately), this does not meet the requirement of an ailing family member. Based on the way the rule was written, he was going to have to sit a year before he was eligible to compete. Obviously the first reports that came out condemned the NCAA for its decision. In reality, the NCAA just had to take time to assess the situation, look at the fact that this was outside their current regulation, but not against the intent of the legislation, and make an informed decision.[6]

The basic fact is that someone came into the NCAA, and did not meet the applicable rule. The NCAA cannot, and should not, make an exception due to the circumstances without process. For a truly unbiased[7] account of these initial findings by the NCAA, more attention must be focused on the possibility/likelihood that these cases can and will get overturned. These situations involve the unintended consequences of legislative wording that is broad enough to cover many instances that would either abuse the rules or go against the spirit of the NCAA’s goals. While a few innocent individuals get caught up in these rules, the appeal/waiver processes are in place to weed out these unintended offenders.

At the end of the day, what was the real chance that the NCAA wouldn’t have reversed these cases? Slim to none. These cases are indicative of many where the NCAA overturns a decision or approves a waiver as long as a legitimate argument can be made as to why the rule doesn’t apply in an individual case, or why an exception can be made without going against the legislative intent. The uninformed public naturally sees these stories, gets up in arms about the NCAA’s villainy, and demands immediate gratification. Fun fact, there is no instant gratification, especially when it comes to due process concerning any sort of governing body (sports or otherwise). The same thing happened with the Penn State case; everyone was so certain that the crime should be punished that they looked in the wrong direction. [8] Public outcry demanded instant gratification, and the NCAA was pressured into acting, one of two recent events where they abandoned their process.[9]

With increasing pressure to reform, everyone needs to realize that these changes are not instantaneous. The other important thing to remember is that the system is not broken. Sure it has some nicks and cracks, but it is in no way beyond repair. Tearing down the house to fix the front door is never a good idea.

In the meantime, the NCAA does what it is meant to do: monitor violations that are reported to them, and act accordingly. Occasionally a situation arises that has not come up before, or falls under a rule that creates an unintended victim. These events are decided upon after careful consideration to ensure that each particular case meets current NCAA rules, or the case is determined to be an outlier in need of an exception. The next time a seemingly absurd decision occurs, remember to take a breath, because the initial decision is not the end of the line. Condemning the NCAA for any decision that’s less than final is an irrational response that illegitimately casts the NCAA in an unfavorable light and disrespects the full “due process” of the NCAA.

[1] This coincidentally outlines one of the primary topics for reform with the power conferences looking for more financial freedom, but I digress.

[2] As an aside, every story on this incident mentioned the repayment of $20 to the school. Schools and the NCAA aren’t profiting on any extra benefit violations; repayment of the value of an extra benefit always goes to charity. Yet another small, but in my eyes, significant, discrepancy regarding NCAA process that is frequently reported wrong.

[3] If a school says a student-athlete received a benefit not available to the general student body, the NCAA isn’t going to disagree and say “Don’t worry about it, just offer everyone the benefit.”

[4] That’s an admirable sentiment, if only other legislative systems followed that logic. Next time I am caught speeding, I will surely hope that the ticketing officer has bigger fish to fry and declines to give me a ticket. I’m sure a small shop owner will understand that there are bigger fish to fry if the law ignores petty theft and sticks to punishing murderers.

[5] These don’t go so far as to say “NCAA screws Marine,” and “NCAA bans runner for running,” but they may as well have.

[6] This is probably the area with the most “conflicting” NCAA decisions, when one player may be granted a waiver and another has to sit a year.

[7] Many of these stories inevitably throw a negative tone into headlines and articles regarding the NCAA.

[8] I still maintain that no NCAA violation happened and that the whole situation should have been governed by the Clery Act and not the NCAA. The NCAA’s job is not to punish crimes. Not to get into it here, that argument is for another day.

[9] The other was the Miami investigation, and who even knows what happened there. That mistake was on the NCAA.

 

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