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Latest college scandals again reveal folly of NCAA rules

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Here is the early prediction on what will come – at least in terms of NCAA sanctions – from the accompanying Yahoo Sports story detailing how Luther Davis went from starting Alabama defensive end to middle man possibly funneling money from agents and financial planners to a handful of top SEC players, including some in Tuscaloosa.

Nothing.

Or, at least, not much.

The NCAA won't be able to get enough people to talk. They won't be able to access the paper trail. It's possible they won't even muster much of an effort. There isn't a direct tie to the coaching staffs. The schools involved, Alabama, Mississippi State and Tennessee, will solemnly declare their concern, even though the latter two are already on probation for previous things that produced solemn concern. Maybe Volunteers defensive lineman Maurice Couch, the only still-eligible participant, gets hit a little, but that'll be it.

And that's fine. The NCAA always looks foolish when it tries to retroactively strip championships – in this case, Alabama's.

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D.J. Fluker won championships at Alabama the previous two seasons. (AP)

It's looks even worse when it argues that something horrible occurred if a kid such as D.J. Fluker, who grew up poor even before Hurricane Katrina left him homeless and sleeping in a car with four others, actually accepted some of the money that just about everyone was willing to throw at him because they've defined his worth as far greater than just tuition, room and board.

When it comes to these kinds of stories, much of the focus is on the NCAA enforcement angle. Some just want to know what the penalties will be and how it will affect competitive balance. Some want retribution along fair-is-fair guidelines – the NCAA lit up their favorite program, so it's about time the damn Tide got its comeuppance too. Still others just want to blame the media for supposedly doing the NCAA's investigative work or even propping up the rulebook by laying out violations.

Almost everyone is missing the forest for the trees.

These stories – from Johnny Manziel and autographs, to Sports Illustrated's current series on Oklahoma State to North Carolina academics to Nevin Shapiro to UConn hoops to Ceruzzi Sports to John Blake to Oregon football to whatever is coming next – contribute to the pulling back of the curtains on how this massive enterprise truly operates. There's enough media selling the fairytale. We don't need fewer investigations.

This is major college athletics. Not those public-relations commercials during the games with cinematography, soaring music and canned concepts propping up "amateurism" as anything more than a tax dodge. And this is the river of underground money that flows through major college football. It's everywhere. It's undeniable. It's uncontainable.

[Yahoo Sports exclusive: View SEC investigation documents]

The more that truth is exposed, the better.

Luther Davis must have seen it all first-hand as a Crimson Tide player. When he wasn't quite good enough to make the NFL, he got into the business of the business, using his connections and credibility with current players who might make the pros to attract a slew of parties looking to gain access to them. If they didn't use Davis, they'd use someone else. Maybe a high school or AAU coach. Maybe a friend from home. Maybe a minister or a family member. Maybe even a college assistant coach, trainer or workout guy. That's how it works. Everywhere. And it always will.


Amateurism is a bankrupt concept. It was invented by British aristocrats in the mid-1800s as a way to keep working-class athletes from succeeding at their elitist pursuits. Basically, as long as guys who had to labor in factories six days a week were worn out from the work and lacked time to practice, the rich guys who never dealt with such concerns would continue to be superior at sailing or dressage or cricket or whatever. So the bourgeoisie who didn't need the money declared it noble to play for no pay. How nice of them. Their true reasoning, of course, was to assure the continuation of their favored status on an uneven playing field of competition.

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Johnny Manziel received a half-game suspension after the NCAA's recent inquiry. (AP)

This detestable idea was later co-opted by the NCAA and the modern Olympic Games (the ancient Greek athletes were actually paid). The public was then repeatedly sold the idea of the innocence of amateurism and sold it well. This conveniently allowed the powerful administrators to control all the revenue produced.

Amateurism is a sham in practice, too, one that simply isn't being followed or respected, as story after story after story proves. So many of the athletes, players and administrators don't believe in it. That's the value of the coverage. It's made denying the extent of the violations laughable.

Enforcing amateurism became so impossible and ridiculous that even the International Olympic Committee – still in favor of kickbacks and bribes, mind you – gave up on it … nearly three decades ago. The Olympics didn't collapse because Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps can appear in TV commercials. It actually got more popular. It'd be no different in the college game.

Besides, it's not like college administrators – commissioners, athletic directors, coaches and so on – have any use for the spirit of amateurism.

They long ago ditched any semblance of austerity that might come if you were truly operating just an extracurricular activity or true non-profit sports enterprise. Instead, they drape themselves in huge salaries, private planes, comp cars and country club course memberships. They snatch every last freebie at Nike retreats and lounge on Caribbean cruises funded by bowl executives. They hold their meetings at palm-lined luxury hotels.

The AD at Michigan isn't paid the same as the AD at Eastern Michigan. The AD at Michigan isn't paid the same as the administrative assistant at Michigan. They sure aren't denying themselves the fruits of the open market. It's Johnny Football who is deemed no different than a University of New Hampshire field hockey player.

Now, some schools certainly do try to follow the rules, if only out of self-interest. There is little doubt the programs caught up in Luther Davis' bank records aren't too pleased. There's no indication anyone on campus knew it was happening. And Stillwater sure doesn't sound like a fun place this week.

Still, the thinking here is so infuriatingly circular.

[Related: Ex-Alabama player tied to agents]

One of the arguments against offering football players a cut of the revenue is that the school athletic departments can't afford it. Then the athletic departments, in an effort to make sure it is following the rules (or at least create the perception of doing so), construct massive compliance departments to monitor the athletes and stop them from getting any extra cash.

Ohio State's compliance office, to pick just one example among many, has 15 employees. The top guy gets six figures and a free car. Bloating up the budget with all these well-paying administrative, non-coaching, non-training, non-athletic jobs – jobs that are completely unnecessary and serve no basic purpose in the world of either sports or education – just further drains the available funds and then conveniently backs up the argument that they don't have any money to share with the players. Around and around it goes.

Collectively, these athletic departments are spending tens of millions of dollars to make sure the athletes aren't getting an extra dime.


The NCAA rulebook is powerful. It isn't more powerful than the ever-churning wheels of American capitalism. It stands no chance and never will. This is a country that favors open markets and the open market has clearly stated that top college players are more valuable than what their schools offer as compensation.

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NCAA president Mark Emmert has overhauled his enforcement department. (USA Today)

Maybe it is coaches giving something extra on national signing day, or for making big plays. Maybe it is boosters expressing their delight at being entertained by giving an envelope full of cash or, as the SI story comically alleges, even paying a player to go fishing. Maybe it's agents and financial planners offering support today as a bet on future earnings.

Or maybe it's memorabilia dealers lined up to give Johnny Manziel thousands of dollars to sign his own name on a picture of himself. That's the market speaking. These players are worth something. It's the NCAA that's trying to hold it back, clinging to the old deal (tuition, room and board) that was made about a century ago when the stadiums seated 20,000, the games were on the radio and no one ever heard of tier-one cable fees.

[Watch SportsDash: Broken rules, uncertain futures]

The real scandals don't involve money; they involve academics or drug-test fixing or other real-world issues. Systematic academic fraud – one that keeps borderline students uneducated – is what should generate the harshest penalties, the loudest condemnations and the most aggressive NCAA investigations. These are, after all, supposed to be institutions of higher learning. And the schools are very capable of looking into this stuff themselves.

That isn't how the system is set up though.

College sports wants to protect its money – making sure every dollar Manziel or Fluker or whoever can generate comes through them and only them. No side deals directly to the players. That's the motivation to stop middlemen.

Doing so is financially beneficial to the schools in the short term while allowing them to pretend there is some level playing field that, again, allows them to call it "amateur sports" and allows them to avoid taxes and then allows them to howl out the scare tactic that the sanctity of competition would be lost if they did open things up financially to the athletes, even if it is just embracing the Olympic model of allowing outside income.

It's all a big con. It all needs to change or these embarrassing revelations just continue on forever and ever – the slow, piling of straws on the camel's back that continue to ring out a simple truth:

The core problem isn't the breaking of the rules, it's the rules that are being broken.

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