On Michigan, Rose and mid-major scheduling 

September, 8, 2009
9/08/09
11:23
AM ET
The tearful news conference and the endless throat-clearing of reports on the length and frequency of Michigan football practices is a case study in part of what I believe to be wrong in college athletics.

NCAA rules are, in too many cases, arbitrary and not easily understood. Yet they are believed by too many to be sacred scrolls that provide for those accused of violations to be stoned to death, with innocence revealed only when the suspected witch does not float but drowns.

The NCAA process is dessert before dinner. You get to watch the public hanging before the private trial. It is the only business that consistently shoots first and asks questions later.

There is an amazing lack of proportionality and perspective with regard to NCAA rules. If the allegations concerning Michigan are true, which would assume that the players making the allegations had a full understanding of what constituted countable and non-countable hours and what constituted voluntary and mandatory workouts, then Michigan is guilty of working too hard on football.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan and Rich Rodriguez have faced scrutiny for allegedly working players for too many hours.
Some of the reporting on the matter has focused upon the sinister violation of NCAA rules, as if all rules are exactly the same and carry the same Scarlet Letter. The way many NCAA rules issues are reported is comparable to a moral equivalence of murder and jaywalking.

Rich Rodriguez is not accused of paying players or looking the other way while players were being paid, but of playing too much football. Is it an hour extra a day, a week, a month? Or is it an allegation equal to child labor abuse in a Third World country? If you were to watch or read many of the reports on the matter, you would never be able to discern it.

While we praise young athletes on the air for their work ethic when they seek out coaching after practice or spend extra time in the film room studying film, are we concerned as to whether such time spent is truly voluntary? When we praise Tim Tebow for his extra hours of film study and for taking a leadership role in organizing and running "voluntary" workouts with his teammates, should we not also be asking why he was not spending that extra time studying Chaucer in the school library, or just how many hours he spent with his head buried in a book studying relative to the hours he spent with his head buried in a helmet playing?

With an allegation of wrongdoing, all "voluntary" workouts appear sinister and coerced. Without the allegation, it is just young men working hard and is the key to success. Are we not smarter than that? In your company or workplace, when your boss selects a charity for the company to stand behind, is it truly voluntary that you contribute? Or do you feel obligated to contribute? Or do you feel like you should just to make sure you have the benefit of the doubt?

How can we possibly legislate "voluntary"? The truth is, we cannot. So let's not criminalize by accusation what we cannot possibly police fairly.

Do schools really need the NCAA to police meetings and practice fields, piling on layers upon layers of expensive staff dedicated to compliance? Is Michigan incapable of making its own decisions regarding the proper balance to be struck by its students and the athletic department?

I believe that the smart minds in the administration at Michigan can decide for themselves how much is too much, and set their own guidelines for practice. They are smart enough to decide what time practice starts, what time it ends and under what conditions it is held. The NCAA does not need to be involved with it and does not need to have its heavy hand in the process.

You never see a librarian at a tearful news conference offering up a plea of innocence for allowing his or her students to sleep in the library cramming for exams. You never see the director of the marching band or the director of the campus theater crying behind a podium upon an accusation that too many hours were spent preparing for a bowl game halftime show or an upcoming production. The NCAA does not have the authority to criminalize hard work or extra hours in those areas. And thank goodness for that.

Did Michigan exceed the time limits for countable football-related activities? I don't know, but we should find out if there is credible evidence to prove it. And let's now make this the Crime of the Century in the meantime. This is just one of many examples of how the system is flawed.

A Rose By Any Other Name: One of the arguments I have heard with regard to the continuing Derrick Rose saga at Memphis is that the SAT score Rose was required to obtain was so low that if he could not pass it, he had no business being in college. Another is that Rose is a one-and-done player who makes a mockery out of college athletics.

While both are valid points, I would disagree. First, if the standard is so low as to be laughable, why does the NCAA have it in the first place? A test that is considered by some to be culturally biased and is in need of a sliding scale with core GPA seems inherently unreliable for an across-the-board minimum standard. If your school sets its standards higher than the NCAA minimum standards, good for you. But if another school's mission is to educate a different level of student, that school should be free to pursue any student it chooses.

Second, I have never bought the argument that some kids don't belong in college. I find that view snobby and elitist. A particular kid might not fit at a particular college, but most every kid can find a place that is appropriate for him or her to go to school. And any amount of college is better than none at all. I believe we should encourage kids to go to college, not slap some facile label upon them and shoo them away.

Sometimes I like to take an analogy to the extreme to make a point. Can you imagine if the NCAA went through a health club and picked out the obese and out-of-shape people and stated that they had no business being in the gym exercising because they were not serious athletes who meet a certain minimum standard? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. Exercise is a good thing that should be encouraged for all, not just those who are running the Boston Marathon or training for the Olympics.

Similarly, Derrick Rose could get something out of being in college, even for a short time. And there was more than one college that was willing to admit and educate him, by the way.

It is too easy for supporters of one school to state that their alma mater would never admit Rose. That is fine. But just because Rose might not meet your standard or ideal, he should not be forbidden from pursing an education elsewhere. And while we are continuing the hand-wringing over Rose's SAT and highly questionable claims of whether he cared whether he could "read and write," nobody has alleged that Rose did not do or was not capable of doing the work that was required of him at Memphis.

Former Virginia coach and current East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland wrote a very thoughtful and persuasive piece on the NCAA Clearinghouse and initial eligibility, and stated that the only standard that counts is whether the student-athlete is capable of doing the necessary schoolwork at that particular school. That is a determination that should be made only by that school, not by anyone else.

Holland also sets forth a proposal to bring back freshman ineligibility so that all freshmen can present a full year of work to establish that the student-athlete is capable of doing the required work and representing the school at the same time. While I applaud the sentiment, I do not agree with the concept of freshman ineligibility. To me, that solution punishes those who are fully capable of balancing school and sport in favor of the few who cannot. I believe that each school is capable of determining which students can make it and which cannot. And if a student is not performing adequately during the season, the school can place that student on academic probation or suspension. It happens all the time. The NCAA doesn't need to be involved, and not everyone has to sit out because of a few who might struggle in their first year.

Brainless Penalties: While I am on my NCAA soapbox, there is one other thing that I have always found curious: Why does the NCAA slap such silly penalties upon transgressors? If Michigan is found guilty of exceeding time limits, one punishment would be restricting the amount of time the Wolverines can practice in the future. In other words, if the Wolverines have practiced too much, the NCAA will make sure that they are bound to practice too little in the future.

What purpose does that serve and whom does that punish? It serves no purpose, and only hurts the players. Young players lose valuable practice time under the watchful eye of a trained coaching staff. They lose out on development and improvement opportunities, potentially affecting their play and perhaps their advancement to the next level. While this might be a stretch, I can envision a situation in which a player could get injured as a result of practice restrictions, with the coaching staff trying to cram too much into too little time -- all of which could wind up costing a kid money or his career at the next level. It just doesn't make sense.

Similarly, I have always found it inapposite and incongruous for the NCAA to penalize institutions of higher learning with the loss of scholarships. I find it almost offensive that a young player would be denied the opportunity to attend college on a scholarship because of a rule broken by someone else. It strikes me as being almost as silly as a hospital being punished by having to turn sick patients away at the door.

[+] EnlargeIsiah Thomas
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesThe long national nightmare is over: FIU finally agreed to play North Carolina in the opener.