December 26, 1996 in Sports

Coaches Endorse, Officials Enforce In Confused Ncaa Convoluted Rules Don’t Add Up For Thousands Of Collegiate Athletes

Steve Wilstein Associated Press
 

Second of two parts

As the NCAA continues to control its athletes, a movement could be looming as athletes demand more rights, fewer restrictions and a bigger share of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues.

Though athletes benefit from a “free” education, the fact is they work in their sports to earn that money, risk injury in every game and practice, can lose their scholarships at the discretion of coaches, and too often don’t even graduate.

Athletes see a double standard in rules that punish them but allow their coaches to hawk everything from burgers and tacos to cars, clothes and shoes.

It’s OK for Southern Cal football coach John Robinson, who earns about $500,000 in salary, to endorse products in game programs each week, but four of his players got one-game suspensions for trading in extra shoes for other gear.

At the end of a TV commercial for Burger King, coach Eddie Robinson of Grambling facetiously asks his players what they’re eating for lunch today. NCAA rules prohibit Robinson or Burger King from treating those players to the Whoppers he’s getting paid to push.

“Clearly, a neo-plantation mentality exists in the campus hierarchy,” said former NCAA executive director Walter Byers, who advocated an overhaul of college sports, deregulating the system and treating athletes like other students in his recent book “Unsportsmanlike Conduct - Exploiting College Athletes.”

“The rules are adopted, interpreted, applied and enforced by the beneficiaries of the present system,” said Byers. “The campus hierarchy appoints the people who go to the conventions, the regional conferences. But these same people - the presidents, the athletic directors, the coaches, and conference commissioners - are the ones who are enjoying the benefits, the largess, of millions upon millions of dollars that cascade from this commercial enterprise. In the present monopoly situation, they are not inclined to change the rules, and they won’t.”

The NCAA manual bulges with more than 500 pages of rules, many so convoluted that Byers and others feel it should simply be thrown out.

“The NCAA has tried to pile rule upon rule in an effort to maintain some long-ago definition of amateurism,” Byers said. “The problem of unequal application or unequal enforcement penalties … is exacerbated by still more rules and interpretations.”

Coaches get snagged by the rules as much as the students, running the risk of losing their jobs over any kind of infraction. Jim Harrick, who coached UCLA to the Final Four title two years ago, lost nearly $500,000 in income when he was fired this season because he lied about a couple more players dining with him and recruits than NCAA rules allow.

“There are so many rules that are not even written in the book,” Harrick said. “Oftentimes I mentioned to my compliance officer, ‘Show me that in the book.’ ‘Well,’ he’d say, ‘it’s not in the book.’ So to keep on top of it is virtually impossible.

“A coach is living his life on eggshells all the time. It cost me my life, my career, my reputation, everything, over what I thought was something so small.”

The early exodus to the pros of dozens of the best college basketball players and high school prospects last spring is spurring the NCAA to make modest reforms, giving athletes a bit more freedom to work while cracking down on them in other ways, especially for taking money from agents.

After Darnell Autry sued the NCAA for the right to act in a film in pursuit of his major in theater, an administrative review panel granted him a waiver of a rule that prohibited athletes from appearing in commercial films. He could have been suspended or stripped of his remaining two years of eligibility if he had appeared in the movie and the NCAA’s rule had been upheld in court.

The NCAA council recently said that, in reaction to the Autry case, it would relax rules banning athletes from activities such as commercial writing projects and media appearances. Though that does not give athletes carte blanche to follow the footsteps of their coaches and get paid to promote the shoes they wear.

The NCAA acknowledged that athletic grants and scholarships generally fall $2,000 to $2,500 a year short of the cost of campus life, including reasonable amounts for food, entertainment, laundry, clothes and travel.

But instead of giving that money to the students, either in extra scholarships or through stipends, the NCAA is expected to approve a half-step to equality at its convention in Nashville next month. Students in good standing after their freshman year would be allowed to work and earn enough to make up the shortfall in their projected costs.

The committee that voted on that tiny breakthrough rejected a more generous proposal that would allow athletes to earn extra money that could be put into a trust fund for them, enabling them to compete in school even after being drafted by a pro team. Also rejected was a loan program that would let athletes borrow against future earnings.

The idea of actually paying athletes is so overwhelmingly opposed by the presidents, athletic directors, and coaches that it wasn’t even given serious discussion.

Maryland president William E. Kirwan, who chaired that committee on agents and amateurism, said it supported a major effort to warn athletes about the consequences of taking money from agents and will urge “much more severe sanctions” for violators. Those penalties would include permanent ineligibility for a student athlete who had illegal contact with an agent. Kirwan said the committee had found that nearly 90 percent of “elite” athletes have had illegal contact with agents.

The NCAA council, meanwhile, rejected the committee’s strong recommendation not to allow schools to make money off the images or numbers of star athletes, who can’t even get a free sample of their own jerseys, much less a portion of profits.

“The issue is one that is of concern to me,” said Kirwan, disappointed in that rejection. “It certainly seems contradictory that we’re willing to make money on the names and images of these folks, but they don’t receive the benefit of this money.”

Nike, which used to pay coaches directly but now strikes all-school deals to promote its products, would like to see athletes get a larger portion of the millions they are generating.

Steve Miller, Nike’s director of college marketing, said the rule book is so complex that the company hired Kit Morris, one of the coauthors of the NCAA’s Knight Commission Report, to head an office near the association’s headquarters in Kansas. Morris tries to interpret the rules, keep the company in compliance and act as a lobbyist.

But all the rules, Miller said, haven’t prevented the most flagrant abuses, like gambling, and have made it only more difficult for athletes to live on equal terms with other students.

“The NCAA needs to fundamentally change its position as it relates to what athletes’ rights are and what they can and cannot do,” said Miller, a father of athletes and a former athletic director at Kansas State. “We’ve created a morass for ourselves. I’d throw the whole book out and start again, and make the rules the same for athletes and students.

“Either athletics is part of the academic institution or it’s not. And if it’s not, then I would vote to get rid of it, have clubs and go the way the Europeans have gone quite nicely for centuries.”

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