Thursday, September 30, 2010

The NCAA: Never Cares About Academics

"Touchdown/Point After" from The Real Views

By William Broussard

Cast aside your aspersions, if you have them about college athletics, for just a second. Clear your mind of the sad case of Reggie Bush, found to have accepted various and sundry contributions while a student-athlete at USC, leading to him forfeiting his 2005 Heisman Trophy. Forget, for just a tick, about the University of Florida’s Chris Rainey, the university’s 27th player arrested in six years under head coach Urban “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Meyer, who allegedly stalked a woman and sent her a text message reading “Time to die, B#$%h.” Forget the University of Tennessee’s Derek Dooley granting premium press access to particularly kind sportswriters while denying access to, you know, journalists, or his predecessor in journalistic integrity, Mike “I’m 40!” Gundy of Oklahoma State, who just verbally assaults journalists when he disagrees with them. And please, forget everything you know about Lane “Monte’s my Dad, ICanHazBCSJob?” Kiffin at Tennessee/USC/Next highest bidder in 2011.

Done forgetting those things? Me either. I’ll probably need a Neuralizer ™.

But put in context, college athletics is not about corruption, greed, law-breaking, abuse and scandal. In fact, the vast majority of student-athletes competing at the NCAA’s highest level, Division I, represent the 350 institutions where they study and compete, as well as those host institutions’ communities, with grace, aplomb, and high honor. The vast majority of college student-athletes are not committing crimes. They’re not accepting bribes. Heck, I was a two-time football all-American and I was never even offered one! And they are, for the most part, graduating at rates that exceed that of their non-student-athlete counterparts. They’re studying their tails off, matriculating successfully, bringing significant honor to their families and communities, and the vast majority of them are going into professions that have nothing to do with sport after graduation.

So why do stories about college athletics focus much more on what’s wrong than what’s right?

Consider the case of Jeremiah Masoli, formerly of the University of Oregon, and currently of the Southeastern Conference’s University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Masoli, after leading the Ducks to a Rose Bowl berth in 2009, was finally, and embarrassingly, dismissed from the team for being charged with a second misdemeanor in as many years. Keep in mind that LeGarrette Blount, who became infamous in 2009 for socking a Boise State player in the jaw after an embarrassing loss on ESPN only got suspended for 6 games at Oregon, so to be suspended from the team, Masoli’s character issues and lack of potential for reform must have been considerable. So when we learned that Masoli planned to transfer to Ole Miss to play football, for so many reasons, many assumed that the NCAA would not approve his application to be immediately allowed to play. For one, transfers from FBS programs to FBS programs are required by NCAA rules to sit out one year. Secondly, transfers are required to be in good standing with their previous institution to be eligible—being suspended isn’t exactly ‘good standing.’

And yet, there he was, on September 4th, just weeks after he announced he would transfer from Oregon, leading the Rebels in overtime against the Jacksonville State Gamecocks, going 7-10 for 109 yards and an interception. Sure, it was an embarrassing home loss, 49-48, and an inauspicious (and in the eyes of many, all too apt) debut for Masoli, but I can’t get over the fact that the NCAA sanctioned his appearance at all. Ole Miss didn’t deserve the loss, and it didn’t exorcise any of my disdain.

Masoli didn’t break any rules to get eligible (though he broke several at Oregon in the first place to become ineligible to play there) and he exploited a loophole to gain a fifth year of eligibility at Ole Miss by enrolling in a graduate program there that was not available at Oregon (Parks and Recreation). Let’s assume for a second that Masoli fully intends to work in the Parks Service upon graduation and give both Oregon and Mississippi the benefit of the doubt for helping Masoli resolve the best way forward for himself after some mistakes in his past (after all, I adore magical realism, which requires one to suspend reality for the sake of the greater power of the narrative). The fact is that in order for moves like this to happen and the NCAA not appear completely crass and uniquely interested in big profits and preserving the profitability of only its biggest brands, it has to land hard on others. And anyone who follows NCAA Football closely knows that the stiffest sanctions are typically leveled on the meekest among the programs.

When APR (Academic Progress Rate) penalties were first issued, punishing programs that did not graduate 50% or more of their players by a series of calculations that include retention and eligibility, the bulk of the scholarship penalties went to non-BCS conference FBS and FCS schools. And while individuals like Masoli get second chances and earn the disgust of fans across the nation, the NCAA can rely on stats which show the significant number of scholarships that the NCAA mandates be cut from academically underperforming programs – this of course rarely happens to Oregon and Mississippi, but much more likely to Portland State and Mississippi Valley.

Masoli broke no rules in getting eligible to play at Ole Miss. Oregon broke no rules in releasing him. But the NCAA continues to make commonsenseless decisions that allow (student)athletes affiliated with their biggest brands to exploit loopholes while others at their lesser brands follow a much stricter set of rules, enforced in a manner more draconian, with much stiffer consequences for non-compliance. Masoli benefits, but we must realize that this was about the BCS, the Pac-10 and the SEC. The NCAA’s commitment to the potential redemption of one young man looking for a second chance appears purely coincidental.

William Broussard is an assistant professor of language and communication and associate director of athletics at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. He blogs at Manifold Superlativity. Follow him on twitter @LouisianaNormal.