No one likes the NCAA. As college athletics de facto legal system, the NCAA is rarely predictable with each new case leading to a unique verdict and punishment. While that’s not altogether different from any court system, it’s still maddening for most sports fans.
But SEC fans, you should be pleased with the work of the NCAA this year. Several of your favorite players, coaches and schools appear to have gotten off rather easy in 2013.
Take Missouri basketball coach Frank Haith, for example. As part of the NCAA’s long probe of the University of Miami athletic department — more on that in a minute — Haith was charged with failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance while serving as the Hurricanes’ hoops coach. According to the NCAA, Haith knew there was funny business going on inside his program and that it involved assistants, an overzealous booster, and money. The governing body also came to a “factual conclusion” that Haith changed his story to NCAA investigators multiple times. In other words, he misled the NCAA and that’s the absolute worst thing a coach can do outside of giving money to players. Former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl and former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel both lost their jobs and then received lengthy show-cause penalties from the NCAA for their dishonesty (Pearl’s was for three years, Tressel’s for five). Haith’s punishment? A five-game suspension.
So why did Haith get a pass? Our bet — as we’ve written before — is that the NCAA wanted to damn sure close the book on its compromised investigation in The U as quickly as it possibly could. That investigation led to a number of NCAA staffers losing their jobs and to yet another big black shiner for the organization as a whole. The NCAA actually stumbled its way into a federal investigation and was darn lucky the self-inflicted damage wasn’t much worse.
Emmert and crew knew this and clearly wanted no part of any appeals that might result in further exposure of the bungled Miami investigation. So Haith, Miami and most of the other folks involved in the scandal received lighter-than-expected punishments. ”Move along, nothing to see here,” seemed to be the message emanating from NCAA Headquarters.
Then there was the autograph caper of Johnny Manziel. As summer wound down, a number of sources claimed that the Texas A&M quarterback had received thousands of dollars in exchange for his autograph on merchandise that could be re-sold for greater profit. Anyone with a brain knows that Johnny Football wouldn’t volunteer hours of his time to make someone else a boatload of money… all out of the goodness of his heart. Who of us would?
But the NCAA wanted no part in opening up what could have become a skyscraper-sized can of worms. Just as Manziel surely received payment for his time and/or autographs, other college athletes have no doubt done the same (they simply weren’t fingered by autograph brokers after the fact). Knowing this, the NCAA handed Manziel a suspension lasting for all of one half of one game for not — get this — not trying to stop someone from profiting from his image. Uh, right.
The one-time Heisman-winner sat out the first two quarters of the Aggies’ season opener and the story faded from the front page. More importantly, the NCAA had set a precedent. Not having the time or manpower to investigate every claim of a kid signing autographs for cash, Emmert’s group can now simply drop a one-half suspension on any player it believes accepted money for his John Hancock.
Interestingly, it was just three years ago that the same NCAA suspended Georgia receiver AJ Green for four whole games because he had sold a game-worn jersey for 1000 bucks. Like Pearl and Tressel, Green must feel that he simply got popped at the wrong time. Had he broken a rule in the current environment, he might’ve been benched for one half or one game rather than for a full 16 quarters, a third of his final season in Athens.
In mid-September came another bombshell report from Yahoo! Sports (a group that’s quickly becoming the Woodward and Bernstein of college sports reporting). Yahoo’s writers had uncovered documents and text messages suggesting that five current and former SEC football players had received impermissible benefits from agents and from runners for agents. Former Alabama offensive tackle DJ Fluker, former Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, then-current Vol defensive lineman Maurice Couch, and former Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and former wide receiver Chad Bumphis were all implicated in the scandal. To date, there’s been little rumbling from the NCAA at all over these matters. Tennessee immediately ruled Couch ineligible for the rest of 2013 — he admitted to taking cash — and that decision was upheld by the NCAA when UT tried to clear him later.
But there were no big follow-ups. Despite the fact that ineligible players were used, it doesn’t appear that the NCAA will be stripping Alabama, Tennessee or MSU of victories. That’s an awfully good thing for Bama since the deletion of wins would have likely meant handing back a pair of crystal footballs, too. Along these same lines, it was also learned midseason that Tide safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix had received a loan of between $100 and $300 from an assistant strength coach. The NCAA allowed Dix to return to the field after a two-game suspension. Bama fired the strength coach who’d tried to do Clinton-Dix a solid.
Compare all that to the way the NCAA handled a 2007 textbook scandal in Tuscaloosa. In that case, the NCAA forced Alabama to vacate victories because it had used ineligible players. In fact, that’s usually how the NCAA responds to these types of cases. Ask Bobby Bowden and Florida State. But the NCAA doesn’t seem to be in such a vindictive mood these days. Not when it’s taking on fire from every direction — a media attacking it, players suing it, and conferences threatening to break away from it. Nope, the mood has clearly changed in Indianapolis.
No one likes the NCAA. We get that. But his year — maybe just this once — SEC fans should say thanks to Mark Emmert and crew. Thanks for being so error-prone in their investigation of Miami. Thanks for not having the money or manpower to investigate every autographs-for-cash deal in the country. Thanks for having so much on their plate and for being so unpopular that they simply couldn’t respond to the playing of ineligible players as they have in the past.
It’s said that life is all about timing. Well, in 2013 — at least in NCAA matters — the timing was right for the SEC.