NCAA Manual needs 419 pages for what a few good words could do
Below is my November 2009 Basketball Times article. Reprinted with permission from Basketball Times. To subscribe to the print or online version, check out their website.
The NCAA Manual is 419 pages. On occasion, I’ve tried to wade through it. You can try to get though the impenetrable phraseology, but good luck making any clear sense.
By contrast, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense totals just 48 pages and sets forth a well-reasoned, thoughtful argument for the American Revolution. Paine’s simple style still holds up today. “Time makes more converts than reason,” he wrote. Suitable for Twitter and applicable to the mess created by the NCAA Manual.
The NCAA Manual illustrates just how much the membership distrusts each other. The bulk of NCAA Manual is an attempt to legislate ethical behavior. Recruiting, transfers, the number of pages allowed in media guides, phone calls, text messaging, on and on. There are rules – and there are ways around rules.
So how did we go from the wonderful concept of amateur college athletics to today’s empire builders? To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway from The Sun Also Rises referring to actual, not figurative, bankruptcy: “Two ways. Gradually, and then suddenly.”
The biggest problem is that NCAA rules are open to wide interpretation. There are four general guidelines on what constitutes an extra benefit, but it never precisely defines them (perhaps because they cannot be precisely defined). It’s like the judge who, when asked to define pornography, replied, “I can’t, but I know it when I see it.”
From the sublime to the absolutely ridiculous: Article 3, Section 2, Subsection 5, Paragraph 6: “Reinstatement of Terminated Member.” Are we talking NCAA rules here or healthcare?
Jay Bilas, ESPN analyst and attorney, illustrates the quagmire created by the NCAA Manual: “One basketball program I know uses an interesting system to determine what to do with regard to the NCAA’s archaic rules. When there is a question about an interpretation, three members of the staff separately call the NCAA for an answer. Invariably, there are three different interpretations provided by the NCAA, and the staff then chooses the interpretation it likes the best.” Hey, give this program credit for bothering to call.
Let’s go from the NCAA Manual to the enforcement of these rules. The NCAA rightly points out, it is merely enforcing the rules set forth by its membership. When it comes to enforcement, Bilas paints a bleaker picture: “The NCAA enforcement system is badly flawed. There are no impartial decision-makers and no checks and balances. How does the NCAA determine its facts and make its findings? However they want, that is how. The NCAA has no burden of proof to meet … The NCAA is not bound by rules of evidence and can choose to believe or disbelieve any witness, no matter the lack of credibility of that witness.”
In 1997, Mike Matthews, Pac-10 compliance director, penned something titled, “If the Almighty Ran the NCAA.” It is an imagined conversation between a frustrated compliance officer and God.
Here’s some of what God allegedly told Mike: “First off, focus on the big issues. Not the little things. Quit worrying about that extra dollar in per diem that the rowing team accidentally got. Stop splitting up days in the recruiting calendar so that a dead period ends at noon. Trim down the definition of amateurism so it depends on pay for play and not pay for reputation … Give the coaches and schools the responsibility to make decisions and allow them to respond. Making rules usually creates loopholes and doesn’t close them. Write a limited number understandable rules that are easy to administrate. But swiftly and surely punish those who break them. Encourage them to try to do the right thing without passing another rule … Moses wanted to hide behind the rules. He wanted huge stone pillars with hundreds of commandments on them. Nope. Ten was all he got. And handheld tablets only.”
In 2000, the NABC helped fund the Student Basketball Committee, a group of Division I basketball players, which hoped to create a stronger voice for college players.
Shane Battier framed the problem, which clearly still exists today: “These issues have been on a lot of people’s minds for a long time. It came to a head last (1999-2000) season, with all the players being ruled ineligible because the NCAA determined they received ‘extra benefits,’ sometimes the result of tuition being paid for by someone other than their parents. The NCAA basically is saying, ‘You’re guilty until proven innocent.’ That’s not how a system that is supposed to be fair should work.”
After a strong beginning capped by a news conference at the 2000 Final Four, the group quickly fizzled. It was supposedly an “extra benefit” for the NABC to pay travel expenses of these athletes. Really.
Still, Battier offered a lot of common sense.
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