Ohio State mess fuels notion NCAA is making up rules as it goes along
Five Buckeyes are suspended for a chunk of 2011, but allowed to play in bowl
NCAA's heavily layered bureaucracy makes inconsistent rulings inevitable
Fans can't help but compare this ruling to Cam Newton, USC and other cases
The NCAA can send out all the press releases it wants. It can trot out obscure bylaws. It can send its new enforcement chief on an "outreach" tour, as it did earlier this month when newly appointed vice president of enforcement Julie Roe Lach visited several media outlets, including SI.com.
None of it will change the perception -- fueled further by Thursday's Ohio State suspensions -- that the organization is making up the rules as it goes along.
You have every reason to be puzzled as to why five Ohio State players -- most notably stars Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron and DeVier Posey -- will be suspended for the first five games of next season for selling various rings, awards and apparel, yet will be allowed to play in the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas.
If you're an Ohio State fan, you have every reason to be confused about why former star Troy Smith was suspended for the 2004 Alamo Bowl for receiving $500 from a booster while the aforementioned five will suit up despite pocketing between $1,000 to $2,500 from some other nefarious figure.
If you're a Georgia fan, you have every reason to be miffed that receiver A.J. Green had to sit the first four games of this season for a very similar transgression (selling a game-worn jersey) while the offending Buckeyes sold some of their stuff more than a year earlier yet never missed a game.
And if you're just a general college football fan, you have every reason to be puzzled, outraged and perhaps even despondent that the NCAA came down harder on Ohio State players for selling rings than it did on Heisman winner Cam Newton, whose father shopped Newton's signature for $180,000.
Just nine days away from the New Year, this Ohio State mess marks the latest chapter in an unusually busy year for the NCAA's enforcement division. From the USC/Reggie Bush sanctions to the North Carolina agent suspensions to Bruce Pearl, Tom Izzo and Newton, the headlines have been never-ending.
In the heavily layered NCAA bureaucracy, however, different personnel groups handle infractions cases (USC, Tennessee basketball), agent issues (Georgia, UNC), Basketball Focus Group (Izzo) and athlete eligibility reinstatement (Newton, Ohio State).
It's no wonder the rules and the punishments seem so wildly inconsistent.
You can read the full release here, but in a nutshell, this is how the NCAA arrived at the punishments it did for the Ohio State players:
The rules state clearly that a player must be suspended "four games, or 30 percent of a season," for receiving the level of benefits Pryor and Co. did.
The NCAA added a fifth game because "the student-athletes did not immediately disclose the violations when presented with the appropriate rules education," which, according to the school, happened in November 2009.
That date, however, was also the key in justifying why the players won't miss the bowl. AD Gene Smith claims the school was "not as explicit with our student-athlete education as we should have been in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 academic years regarding the sale of apparel, awards and gifts issued by the athletics department." Translation: The players didn't know they were breaking the rules as they were breaking them. (Suspend disbelief starting now.)
Because of that, the NCAA broke out language almost no one (including, by his own admission, Smith) had ever heard: "NCAA policy allows [lifting] penalties for a championship or bowl game if it was reasonable at the time the student-athletes were not aware they were committing violations."
If this were a court of law, we would have just witnessed a plea bargain. Ohio State threw its compliance department under the bus to keep from losing its top quarterback, running back and receiver for the bowl game and delayed penalties until next year, by which time some of the players may have bolted for the NFL unscathed. In the meantime, the NCAA looks tough for adding an extra game above and beyond its usual protocol.
I'm not saying that's what happened. I'm saying that's exactly how it looks to 99 percent of the general public. I'm sure it also looks like all parties were looking out for the interests of the Sugar Bowl, one of the sport's golden gooses, whose sponsors and TV partner would have been none too pleased to be shelling out millions to show a game featuring Ohio State's second-string offense (much like the Newton ruling suspiciously came down the week of the SEC Championship Game).
The truth is, the NCAA has almost no investment in the Sugar Bowl; it's a BCS property.The NCAA receives a puny $12,000 cut of the proceeds. If it truly wanted to send a message about ... whatever it is it's trying to send a message about, it would have said: "Sorry, the 'we didn't know' defense doesn't hold water." That's certainly what the Committee on Infractions told USC back in June.
But the student-athlete reinstatement staff -- again, a different group of individuals -- seems to have far more empathy toward claimed naivety. One of the reasons it declined to punish Newton was the argument that he didn't know of his father's black-market activities. Just as it apparently never occurred to Pryor that you're not supposed to sell your Fiesta Bowl sportsmanship award.
During her meeting with SI.com, Roe Lach, who began her new job less than two months ago, said the organization is reviewing all aspects of its enforcement process to see what areas can be streamlined and what issues merit greater education and awareness not only for the public and the media but also on campuses and in compliance offices. I would not want her job.
These days, almost everyone in the college sports community is ticked at the NCAA about something, and the collective stink of the past six months is soiling fans' enjoyment of the sport. Come January, two of the five BCS bowls will feature star players whom one segment of the public is miffed are still eligible and another segment is miffed were persecuted to begin with.
The only thing we do know: The Superdome will still be sold out. Allstate will still get a return on its investment. ESPN will get huge ratings for Auburn's national championship appearance.
The business side of college sports goes on unscathed. The "student-athlete" part is murkier than ever.