Breaking the rules: College football (cont.)
Posted: Wednesday July 25, 2007 12:11PM; Updated: Wednesday July 25, 2007 6:04PM
Rules aren't only bent on the field or in a recruit's front yard, though. It's no secret that a lot of college football players aren't necessarily academically fit for college, and some schools go the extra mile to keep players eligible. Former NFL running back James Brooks revealed a few years back that he had never fully learned how to read. Asked how he made it through four years at Auburn, Brooks replied, "I never had to go to class." While that story, if true, would constitute a pretty clear case of academic fraud, many such cases aren't so black and white. For instance, a Tennessee English professor reviewed transcripts for 39 players from the Vols' '98 national title team and found what she considered to be "an unmistakable pattern of academic abuse," but no sanctions were ever levied. That's because while the common practice of steering players into easier majors or courses taught by athlete-friendly professors may seem shady, it's not technically illegal. Similarly, the tutors who assist athletes with their schoolwork often cross the line, but unless it can be proven that they actually wrote a player's paper for him, there's no effective recourse.
Finally, there's the implicit rule-breaking that goes on across the country every summer in the form of so-called "voluntary workouts." NCAA rules clearly state that players can only be required to practice during a certain time of year and, even then, only 20 hours per week. However, players know well that if they want to see the field come September, they best be with their teammates doing passing drills in June. The rules also state that coaches are not to be informed of players' progress during the summer, but many schools conduct timed speed tests or formal weight tests, and the results inevitably find a way back to the coach. Heck, many coaches' office windows overlook the stadium or practice fields at is it. They can see for themselves.
If a fan were to throw up his hands in disgust every time he heard about some such skirting of the rules, his arms would get awfully tired. In a sport where the stakes are of supreme importance to many of its most passionate followers, the never-ending quest for that extra edge is so implicit that most of it barely raises an eyebrow.
The average fan has just two concerns when it comes to such matters: That their school never has to suffer the NCAA's wrath -- and that their arch-rival goes down in a burning heap of sanctions. As soon as a negative rumor hits the Internet message boards about a school's coaches or players, someone invariably posts the obligatory, "let's wait for the facts to come out" admonition or blames the obviously ludicrous allegations on whichever "biased" media outlet had the audacity to report them. Such caution gets thrown to the wind, however, when a similar headline surfaces about a rival team or generally hated program. The fangs come out, and the natives become blood-thirsty. They want nothing more than to see the other team unravel, complete with pink slips and recruiting limitations. Of course, if the same exact headline were to be written about their own team, they'd likely accuse the author of initiating a witch hunt.
The basic tenant to keep in mind is that when a school gets nailed by the NCAA for cheating, that doesn't necessarily mean it's indisputably dirtier than its competitors. It's just that the perpetrators happened to be sloppy, stupid or unlucky enough to actually get caught.
Stewart Mandel writes about the NCAA's futile struggle to police the nation's cheaters in his book Bowls, Polls and Tattered Souls, in stores Aug. 24. Pre-order your discounted copy today.
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