NCAA was better off letting Manziel play than enforcing letter of law
To truly understand the stupidity of the plea bargain the NCAA accepted Wednesday from Texas A&M in the Johnny Manziel autograph case, one must first have a healthy appetite. If you visit the website of the Daniel Island Grille in Daniel Island, S.C., and try to look at the menu, you'll find the following message: "Menu temporarily removed due to NCAA request. Please contact our restaurant for menu or stop by today!"
Why would the NCAA care about the menu at a restaurant near Charleston, S.C.? Because the Daniel Island Grille used to have three items on that menu that violated NCAA bylaw 184.108.40.206 on behalf of one South Carolina and two Clemson players. Every time diners ordered Clowney's Turkey and Avocado Wrap, the Tajh Boyd Chicken Quesadillas or the Sammy Watkins Reuben, they contributed to the shattering of this sacred rule, which bans players from being used as endorsers without their knowledge or their permission. This is the same rule used to justify Manziel's one-half suspension for Saturday's game against Rice. According to a joint press release apparently written with a straight face, Manziel committed an "inadvertent violation regarding the signing of certain autographs." In other words, Manziel signed thousands of autographs without realizing someone would sell those autographed items for a profit.
In truth, NCAA investigators couldn't dig up any proof Manziel was paid for the autographs. The anonymous autograph hounds who went to ESPN to accuse Manziel wouldn't attach their names to their accusations for the NCAA, and the case hit a brick wall. The real winners are Manziel's attorney, Jim Darnell, and the attorneys of Alabama-based Lightfoot, Franklin and White, who tied the NCAA in knots for Texas A&M in far fewer hours than they billed to do the same for Auburn in the Cam Newton case. What isn't clear is if the NCAA requested the face-saving two-quarter suspension or whether Texas A&M simply offered it up. We do know NCAA officials accepted the penalty instead of either pressing for more, or simply admitting they were whipped and calling it a day.
That's where they screwed up. The NCAA has no subpoena power. It can't force anyone outside its limited purview to answer questions or produce documents. That makes the rules -- which are made by the schools and handed to the national office to manage -- extremely difficult to enforce. There is no shame in getting beat on a case involving a mostly cash-only industry full of people who don't make a habit of cooperating with authority figures. But by applying this rule this way, the NCAA has gone down a new rabbit hole.
Even though many of us disagree in principle with rules prohibiting the sale of one's own name or property on principle, the school administrators and coaches who help make the rules take them very seriously. Most importantly, they expect them to be applied evenly. Now, schools and coaches will expect 220.127.116.11 to be applied in the same manner in which it was applied Wednesday. If athletes can now get in trouble for endorsing something they don't know they're endorsing, then what of Clowney, Boyd and Watkins and their eponymous dishes? In truth, the NCAA didn't request the offending menu's removal. The compliance departments at South Carolina and Clemson requested their players' names be removed, because if they weren't, then the players, their football programs or all of the above would be in trouble. Of course, before Wednesday, they would only be in trouble in theory. Now, there is precedent if someone wanted to go after Jadeveon Clowney because some restaurateur wanted to drum up business by slapping Clowney's name on an entrée that doesn't sound like anything a 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive end would ever order.
If I'm North Carolina coach Larry Fedora, the first call I make is to NCAA headquarters, wondering why my team has to play four quarters Thursday against that avocado peddler Clowney instead of two. (Fedora might also mention the 258 consecutively authenticated Clowney-signed items found by Texas A&M blog Good Bull Hunting if he really wants to drive home his point.) If I'm Georgia coach Mark Richt, I'm calling NCAA headquarters and asking why my banged-up secondary isn't getting a two-quarter break Saturday from Señor Boyd and his sauerkraut covered counterpart Watkins. This ruling probably hits home for Richt, who was forced by the NCAA to sit star receiver A.J. Green for four games in 2010 for selling a game-worn jersey for $1,000. Hopefully, the NCAA won't treat this plea bargain as a precedent, but I guarantee some school will turn in another for something as silly as that restaurant menu and expect some justice.
The NCAA would have been better off admitting it couldn't prove anything and washing its hands of the Manziel case. At least that would have been intellectually honest. "We couldn't find evidence, and therefore we couldn't punish" is a perfectly reasonable outcome. Instead, it appears the NCAA caved and offered special treatment to a popular player. Now, NCAA leaders will have to answer even more questions from the membership. The next time a big stash of items autographed by one player hits the market, a one-half suspension will be suspected. No discipline -- in the case of a lack of evidence -- won't be an acceptable outcome for the members. Meanwhile, a lengthy suspension -- in the case of a preponderance of evidence -- will only bring cries of favoritism because Johnny Football only got a half. By trying to save face in the Manziel case, the NCAA once again cut itself off at the knees.
Few respected the enforcement process before Wednesday, and even fewer will after. NCAA investigators have almost no chance in most major cases. The rules themselves have been under attack by people like me for years, but a lot of the people who used call us crazy for suggesting college athletes be allowed to cash in on their likenesses have seens some of their beloved conferences shredded or rendered unrecognizable in pursuit of the dollar, and they're starting to realize that what's good for the presidents, athletic directors and coaches might also be good for the athletes.
Instead of clinging to mostly arbitrary rules that can't be enforced evenly, the schools and the leaders of the NCAA should consider overhauling the entire system. Because what really happened Wednesday? Johnny Manziel was suspended for the first half of a game that he never would have played the entirety of anyway. Under normal circumstances, he would have played 35, maybe 40 minutes. So after it failed to prove that Manziel made money off his name, the NCAA essentially stripped him of five to 10 minutes of his season, clucked its tongue at him and sent him on his way. Basically, Manziel was punished for making money for autograph brokers when he's only supposed to be making money for Texas A&M and Adidas.