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Someone Exploits a Loophole, and the NCAA Adds New Rules

by on May 19, 2011 6:00 AM

This offseason has been a particularly thorny one for the NCAA. With the details emerging in high-profile cases, more and more people are questioning the NCAA and the seemingly arcane system of rules and governance.

George Welsh, the former football coach at Navy and Virginia, used to say the Navy had a lot of rules they couldn’t enforce and the Marines Corps enforced their fewer rules with a vengeance. In 2011, the NCAA is at a crossroads and must decide upon one of those approaches.

We’ve seen high-profile cases involving athletes selling their own merchandise and memorabilia. Why does the NCAA forbid athletes from selling items the athletes own? If the NCAA allowed the student-athletes to sell jerseys or championship rings, the floodgates would open. In recruiting a prospect, schools would promise to arrange for a booster to buy future bowl jerseys for a lot more than the $1,500 we’re seeing now.

As a coach, I have dealt with this system for more than 20 years. Is it confusing? Sometimes. The NCAA rule book is more than 400 pages long and contains rules on recruiting, eligibility, complimentary tickets and just about anything else you could imagine.

But coaches, administrators, the media and the public are all partly to blame for the number of rules. In any competitive arena, be it sport, business or politics, there are those who analyze rules to find a weakness or loophole. Like water leaking into a basement, all it takes is a crack and a small trickle can become a flood. Once one team finds a way to exploit it, everyone else follows.

The teams that don’t have the resources – that is, money – to exploit the breach propose rules to plug the leak. Once that is done, someone else finds another loophole and the process starts again – resulting in more and more rules.

In 1996, to better market our summer football camp, I revamped our brochure. What was a standard pamphlet became a 16-page booklet promoting the coaching staff, the facilities, Penn State’s NFL players and the program’s academic success. After the camp application was torn out, the booklet was designed to be a recruiting tool that would sit on a coffee table or a high school coach’s desk.

It cost a lot more to make, but Penn State had a built-in advantage. Penn State’s coaches were paid a set camp salary from the university-owned camp. Other schools’ camps are owned by the coaching staffs and the coaches keep all the money. The extra cost of keeping up with our new camp brochures came right out of their pockets.

Before long a rule was added, and now NCAA Bylaw limits camp brochures to one standard size for every school. I feel some personal responsibility for that one.

In the 1960s, student-athletes could either be given a job or a scholarship. Student-athletes had jobs like watching towels being thrown into a hamper or checking golfers into the course in the dead of winter. John Wooden and UCLA had more access in Los Angeles to jobs than other schools in different locales. Some schools could make these things happen while others could not.

The NCAA added rules.

In the 1970s, football players were handed tickets to games and could do what they wanted with them. Some schools set them up with alums to buy the players’ extra tickets for large sums of money. At that time, a school like Kansas, which didn’t sell out their games, couldn’t compete with a school like Oklahoma, where the games were all sold out. The OU players could make a much higher premium selling their tickets.

The NCAA added rules.

In the middle of the last decade, the NCAA allowed coaches to text-message recruits as a way to better communicate during the recruiting process. A company devised a program that enabled staff assistants in the football office to text to every recruit’s cell phone number in their database. The text would appear as though it were coming from the recruiting coach’s phone. Schools used the system to send 10 or more texts a day – and the recruits’ phone bills skyrocketed, making for some unhappy parents.

The NCAA added rules.

A few years ago, Michigan lost a recruit to Oregon, who used an alumnus’ private jet to fly the recruit to campus. Private planes were used by a lot of schools for official visits. Some schools bought shares of private jets from services like NetJets. Private planes are pricey and some schools didn’t want to spend the money.

The NCAA added rules.

These are just a few examples of how the NCAA is forced to constantly react to creative interpretations of bylaws already on the books.  The goal of the rule changes is to create a level playing field.

The NCAA is far from perfect, but many of the perceived flaws are a direct reflection of the member schools’ imperfections. In a world in which the letter of the law and the spirit of the law leave a gap, many coaches, administrators and student-athletes have wiggled through.

The result is a system of many unenforceable rules. The challenge facing NCAA leadership is where they go from here.

State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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