By Jeff Weyant
This article is Part One of a series of features regarding current and recent controversies throughout college athletics, and what can be done to resolve the issues.
Consider Derrick Rose: the top point guard prospect out of high school, he spent the 2007-08 season at the University of Memphis before leaving early for the NBA, where he was drafted first overall by the Chicago Bulls. He won Rookie of the Year, made the All-Star Team as a sophomore, and in his third year, 2010-11, Rose became the youngest MVP in the history of the NBA and led his team to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Had the rules been followed, however, he might never have done any of these things.
The road to the NBA for an American basketball player traditionally has one path: high school, college, NBA. For great players, the “college” part is often a blip on the radar, lasting the now-required one year before moving directly to the professional league. Derrick Rose, then, had to spend a minimum of twelve months doing something constructive before entering the draft. Thus, he went to college.
If a player like Rose is going to play college ball for any amount of time, it’s in his best interests to play with and for the best players and coaches. Settling for anything other than a Division-I school is detrimental to the player’s growth, because the environment in which you do something is as important as whether or not you’re talented. Just ask children from poverty-stricken homes who repeatedly do worse on academic exams than those from more affluent households.
Student-athletes must fulfill NCAA requirements in order to play for a Division-I team. They can be found here, particularly under the “Eligibility Standards Quick Reference Sheet.” Not only must a student-athlete fulfill a set of core course requirements, similar to what most universities require of any admitted student, but the student-athlete must also have a grade-point average of 2.00 or higher and an SAT or ACT score relative to their GPA. That is, if the incoming player has a 2.00 GPA, their SAT score must be a minimum of 1010. If they have a GPA of 3.55 or above, the SAT score need only be 400 or higher.
Problems abound, here, but what’s important is that a student-athlete must possess the right amount of a certain kind of intelligence in order to play basketball at the level appropriate to his or her skills. That is, they must have Skill A in order to adequately utilize Skill B. The same goes for any college sport, be it football, wrestling, whatever. This is, of course, not a requirement in virtually any professional sports league. Skill A is irrelevant and sometimes an indication that Skill B is lacking (see Adonal Foyle, a decent NBA center who spent most of his time advocating political causes, writing poems, and starting book groups with teammates).
The one year Derrick Rose spent at the University of Memphis has been voided by the NCAA because after he left, allegations and subsequent evidence surfaced showing that Rose and others had their grades manipulated to gain admission to Memphis. That is, the best young basketball player in the United States shouldn’t have been playing with the other best young basketball players because he wasn’t smart enough.
A player deemed too stupid to play Division-I college athletics either plays Division-II or lower (if they can meet their academic standards), plays in smaller leagues outside of college until they’re eligible to enter their sports’ professional league, or, as is becoming more and more common in basketball, spends a year across the Atlantic playing in the European leagues.
If all the rules had been followed, Derrick Rose would’ve played elsewhere, perhaps Europe, and his career might look like Brandon Jennings, the top high school prospect the year after Rose. Jennings played a year in Europe before entering the draft and potentially did himself a disservice. By all accounts, he didn’t improve very much in the year he spent abroad. If he’d spent a year at Kentucky, Arizona, UNC or UCLA, he would’ve had more attention, better facilities, and would likely have improved in ways he didn’t overseas.
A player’s life and livelihood are therefore anchored in large part to whether they can get into a top university, even for a year, which makes little sense considering their aim is to play in a post-college professional league, which often requires very little academic capability.
What’s interesting about Rose’s grading controversy is the way the NCAA handled it. Their investigation concluded that Rose and the other three players involved had no knowledge of the grade doctoring (which seems highly implausible) and were thus not at fault. They were, however, deemed ineligible because they didn’t meet the requirements of a student-athlete under the NCAA provisions, thus necessitating the University of Memphis to retroactively vacate the entire 2007-08 basketball season.
Transitioning more recently, Cam Newton’s last year of college football had a similar if less severe conclusion. His father, Cecil Newton, was alleged to have sought a six-figure monetary payment in return for his son playing for Mississippi State University. The NCAA concluded that Mr. Newton’s solicitation did in fact occur, but that Cam had no knowledge of it and was therefore eligible to play. Three days later he led Auburn to victory in the SEC Championship game. Over the next several weeks he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide and secured Auburn its second national championship in the BCS title game.
The NCAA, then, conceded that Derrick Rose and Cam Newton were unaware of violations that concerned them principally, which sets an interesting precedent in the years to come, as any player alleged to have violated NCAA regulations can simply claim ignorance. This naturally benefits the NCAA, who would rather see the best players continue to play rather than ruin a season of football, basketball etc. by sanctioning the very people that audiences and fans pay to see (“pay” being a key word).
The most recent scandal involves Jim Tressel, author of multiple books on faith and integrity and now the former football coach at Ohio State University. After several violations over the years by Tressel and his players (at multiple institutions), the then-OSU coach received an email in April 2010 from a former Buckeye football-player-turned-lawyer who claimed Ohio State players were trading signed jerseys and other memorabilia for tattoos at a local parlor, a straightforward NCAA violation.
The only person Tressel contacted was the mentor of Terrelle Pryor, Ohio’s star quarterback, and one of the players allegedly involved in the email’s accusations. In September 2010 Tressel signed an NCAA claiming he knew of no violations within his program and in December 2010 he lied to a university investigator. The truth (and emails) was eventually revealed and after further allegations that a local dealership was selling cars to Ohio State athletes, with suspicion as to special deals and further infractions, Tressel resigned.
In the end fair play “won,” in that Tressel left and the players involved in the tattoo parlor affair are suspended the first five games of next season, but what remains above it all is that it took an ever-growing firestorm to propel the school into action regarding resignations and suspensions, including an admission that initial investigations were hasty and insincere. It doesn’t help that Tressel has committed infractions everywhere he goes, yet there was no system in place at Ohio State to safeguard against future violations.
That is, as was the case with Cam Newton and Derrick Rose, the NCAA and college athletic programs in general want the best players and the best coaches playing every game instead of putting forth a mediocre product. They will go so far as to cover up violations and create loopholes allowing players to retain eligibility.
You don’t have to meet the academic requirements to be a student-athlete to recognize there’s a serious and growing problem in college sports: A league that feeds directly into the pros mandates conditions irrelevant to the sport. Great sums of money are being made by the players, who see little of it, leading inevitably to shady financial interactions with people outside the university. And because players select the team and not the other way around, it’s a breeding ground for recruiting violations.
In Part Two of this series, we’ll look at these last issues in greater detail, particularly the pay-for-play controversy, and I’ll suggest a unique resolution, one you may not have heard before, and one that solves every problem.
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