The National Collegiate Athletic Association is playing tough guy again. It suspended Ohio State football player Chase Young for taking and repaying a loan (under $800) so his girlfriend could see him play in the 2019 Rose Bowl.
The NCAA calls this an “impermissible benefit.” Was it?
The NCAA collects billions from its long-term television deals, yet its approach to eligibility is an unregulated labyrinth of rules and arbitrary enforcement. There are many proposals for reform, but effective change needs to address three fundamental problems: subpoena power, due process and oversight.
According to the NCAA, “impermissible benefits” are perks related to the athlete’s sports status. Examples include free tickets to games, free use of a car, performance inducements, discounted housing. There is also an NCAA section on “extra” benefits from university employees or boosters, a murky collection of secret payola and disparate perks like free haircuts, long distance phone calls and eating for free at a booster’s restaurant. The exceptions are absurd: Inviting a player for Thanksgiving dinner is allowable. Really?
Promoting the purity of college athletics is an uphill climb. The NCAA has no subpoena power, so it either regulates by hearsay or it comes down hard on naive infractions committed in plain sight, perhaps like Young’s loan.
Emerging state laws and newly proposed NCAA rule changes would allow high-profile student-athletes to earn endorsement income based on their market value. But this does little to help the journeyman athletes. Things like food, bus fare or a winter coat are out of reach for too many of the 480,000 total college student-athletes.
Perhaps only 1% or 2% are elite enough to attract meaningful endorsements. Must the rest be humiliated by ridiculous rules about haircuts and Thanksgiving dinner?
Without subpoena power, the NCAA cannot effectively investigate the larger, more material transgressions. Instead, it penalizes meals and other minor issues, while major payoffs, massive recruiting and admissions abuses and monstrous sexual abuse scandals such at Penn State or Michigan State slip through the cracks.
A new independent government agency could issue subpoenas plus hear grievances and appeals. The NCAA could still regulate, but with more due process and oversight.
Independent oversight is needed to preserve fairness and perspective. In 1994, Darnell Autry was a star running back for the Northwestern University football team. He led Northwestern to the Rose Bowl, then was drafted into the NFL. While at Northwestern, he was offered a part in a feature film. The NCAA, while acknowledging it could help NU recruiting, instead, called it an “impermissible benefit” and threatened to revoke his remaining eligibility.
Meanwhile, Northwestern was allowed to make and sell a Rose Bowl video expressly to promote NU football and raise money for the athletic department.
Autry was featured in the NU film and was paid nothing. Autry fought back. He argued his own film opportunity was not an impermissible benefit because he was, in fact, a Northwestern theater major where such benefits are encouraged by the theater department. The NCAA finally relented.
Consider my own case: Knapp v. Northwestern University (7th Cir., 1996) where Northwestern disqualified Nick Knapp, its star basketball recruit, after a mysterious heart episode. Knapp’s doctors argued he could still play without harm to himself or others, so Knapp attacked the disqualification as a violation of federal disability laws.
Even so, he still offered to solve the problem the easy way by transferring to another Big Ten school that had already agreed to take him. Northwestern did not object.
Problem solved? No.
The NCAA refused to waive its no transfer rules and that forced a publicized federal lawsuit. What is the purpose of the no-transfer rule? To keep players and competing schools from gaming the system after a player enrolls. Knapp, Northwestern or the second school weren’t gaming anything, but blind punitive enforcement hurt all three.
Now, another 2019 matter has surfaced with star Memphis basketball player James Wiseman winning a restraining order against the NCAA after it disqualified him for another “impermissible benefit,” namely, $11,500 in moving expenses so his family could relocate to Memphis, Tenn.
Although that seems like a material amount, Wiseman claims he did not know about it. Rather than penalize students and families, perhaps a review board with discretionary authority could approve various hardship aid petitions for reasonable family needs, even moving.
To fully root out frauds, schemes and other abuses, the NCAA needs access to subpoena power, but as a private institution it cannot issue subpoenas. And adding more unchecked powers would only make a flawed system more draconian anyway.
Student-athletes should be able to apply for reasonable assistance for fundamental necessities rather than be forced to drop out, take under-the-table payments or be doomed to poverty while their universities and NCAA collect billions. Independent oversight can provide balance and fairness — and the NCAA could easily afford the cost of funding an agency to help provide it.
Was Young’s repaid loan really a benefit or did it merely even the playing field? If a girlfriend wanted to see him on the debate team would anyone have cared?
The current NCAA regulatory scheme is a square peg in a round hole. A new agency could issue subpoenas, oversee what would amount to private sector due process guidelines and provide a means to appeal unfair or illogical rulings. Otherwise, the whole intercollegiate system suffers, especially the student-athletes.