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Schools, not NCAA, standing in the way of positive scholarship change

Todd O'Brien's tale caused quite a stir on Monday. O'Brien, a former Saint Joseph's basketball player, has taken his story to the media because his efforts to get St. Joe's to release him from his scholarship so he can play his final season at Alabama-Birmingham have thus far produced no results. The fact that NCAA rules allow a school to essentially hold an athlete's eligibility hostage out of sheer vindictiveness didn't sit well with a lot of readers.

Naturally, O'Brien's tale isn't that simple. While he has graduated from Saint Joseph's, the fact that he already transferred from Bucknell to St. Joseph's muddles the issue of his eligibility for the NCAA's one-time graduate transfer exception. That doesn't mean O'Brien is out of luck. It means he needs something called a legislative relief waiver.

Which is funny, because Todd Graham didn't need any kind of release or waiver -- only a gutless text message so he didn't have to face his former players.

Graham, for those who missed it last week, is the football coach who bolted Pittsburgh for Arizona State after 11 months on the job. The NCAA can't force Graham to sit out a year before coaching the Sun Devils, because Graham would immediately file a fat lawsuit that the NCAA would undoubtedly settle to keep from getting crushed by a jury.

Graham has rights when dealing with the NCAA and its member institutions. O'Brien does not. The system is ludicrously stacked against O'Brien, a 22-year-old who -- without the aid of a legal advisor, because the NCAA forbids that sort of thing -- signed his first contract with an NCAA member institution at 18. Whose fault is that?

You probably thought I was going to say the NCAA. I could, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. It's too easy to paint the NCAA as a bureaucratic bogeyman run by five or six Illuminati who sit in Indianapolis and dream up new ways to oppress athletes. That simply isn't the case. The people who work at the NCAA national office don't make the rules, and most are good, hard-working people who truly do care about the athletes. The NCAA is a representative democracy. The schools make the rules.

And a lot of schools want to make sure the rules stay tilted in their favor. They don't want the 18- to 22-year-olds gaining any bargaining power.

How do we know this? Because several athletic administrators put that desire in writing earlier this year.

Christian Dennie, a Texas-based attorney who once worked in the athletic departments at Missouri and Oklahoma and who now runs a college sports law blog, obtained a list of override requests from NCAA schools last week and posted it. The bulk of the requests come from schools that want to slow or stop the passage of two proposals that emerged from this past summer's NCAA presidential retreat.

The fight by certain schools against the proposal to offer up to a $2,000 annual stipend for athletes makes sense. Back when that was first proposed, I told you it was a scheme by wealthy schools to force a schism in the Football Bowl Subdivision. I was half right. The schism wouldn't just be in the FBS, but throughout Division I. "We are a 'have-not,'" someone at Southeastern Louisiana wrote in the school's override request. "This rule benefits the Division I 'haves' and would widen the chasm between 'BCS' schools and non BCS schools."

What doesn't make sense is the resistance to multiyear scholarships. The presidents at the retreat pushed the proposal to give athletes a measure of security. Currently, they are signed to one-year, renewable scholarships. The school can elect not to renew for any reason. This is a problem because some schools sign more players than they have available scholarships to accommodate. It also is a problem because new coaches sometimes cut players who have done nothing wrong besides fit the system the previous coach ran.

So allowing schools to offer multiyear deals is a good thing. It can only help the student-athletes the schools claim to care about so much. Obviously, some provision can be written into the rule to allow programs to jettison players who fail drug tests or commit crimes; most contracts have a morality clause, and a multiyear scholarship should be no different. This seems like a no-brainer. Everyone wins. Right?

So why does Boise State hate the idea so much that its officials wrote that the proposal would "create a recruiting disaster?" "When you combine 2001-97 with 2001-96 [the stipend proposal] it creates a culture of brokering," reads the override request. "For a prospective student-athlete, the decision as to where to attend college and participate in athletics is most likely the biggest decision they will make at that point in their lives. That tough decision becomes more complicated when the student and his/her family have to factor in what school 'offers the best deal...'"

Hmmm. People brokering the best deal for themselves. Why does that sound so familiar? It almost sounds like a school that by 2013 will have hopped conferences twice in two years. Apparently, that's OK for Boise State's athletic department, but it's not OK for an 18-year-old. Hypocrisy, thy name is Smurf Turf.

On Monday night, John Infante, the author of NCAA.com's Bylaw Blog, reported that the NCAA has received 72 override requests. It needs three more to start the override process.

The Broncos shouldn't feel too bad. Their override request wasn't the worst by a long shot. That title belongs to Indiana State, which provided the following rationale for keeping scholarships at one year. "...the new coach may have a completely different style of offense/defense that the student athlete no longer fits into," the Sycamores' override request read. "Yet, the institution is 'locked in' to a [five] year contract potentially with someone that is of no 'athletic' usefulness to the program." Remember, the athletically useless player -- whose National Letter of Intent stressed he signed with the school and not the coach -- will have to sit out a year if he wants to transfer.

Santa Clara's request was less cold but equally baffling. "As a matter of practice, Santa Clara University already subscribes to the theory underlying this proposal," the request read. "However, we do not believe that the legislation is necessary because of existing NCAA rules that address the reduction or cancellation of athletic aid." That's akin to saying that because I pay my taxes, the government doesn't need an enforceable law to ensure everyone else also pays. Ask Greece how well that arrangement worked out.

Indiana State had stiff competition from Tennessee-Martin. "Multiyear grants-in-aid become problematic when career-ending injuries occur," the override request reads. "The current award period is a year, and student-athlete already receives the benefit of a full year of aid if career-ending or season-ending injury occurs. Institutions can already assist students in future years even though the amount of aid is decreased. But if all institutions begin awarding multiyear grants to remain competitive in the market place, the cost of a full grant for injured student-athlete will increase overall costs."

If that was too wordy for you, here's a translation: Tennessee-Martin doesn't want to have to pay tuition for athletes who suffered career-ending injuries while playing for Tennessee-Martin beyond the school year in which those athletes were injured. How's that for a recruiting pitch?

But Indiana State took the crown by closing with this gem: "Again, if it isn't broke, don't fix it."

Let's examine the system that "isn't broke," shall we? At age 18, an athlete signs a National Letter of Intent. This forces all other schools to stop recruiting the athlete, meaning the athlete loses all his leverage. In return for giving up his leverage, the athlete receives a guarantee from the university of ... nothing. Oh, the contract claims to guarantee a one-year scholarship, but if the school has oversigned, it doesn't have to provide that scholarship.

With the exception of bachelor's degree holders rewarded for their academic expedience with a chance to transfer and play immediately -- and one major conference doesn't even believe in that rule -- an athlete who wants to change schools must forfeit one of his or her years of eligibility. Each athlete's eligibility is finite. He or she has five years to play four. That makes eligibility a supremely valuable resource. The schools know this, which is why, depending on if the athlete has already redshirted, he is tethered to the school by the threat of losing one-fourth or one-fifth of a career.

How is the school tethered to the athlete? By that one-year, renewable scholarship. Schools can drop a player for no reason, and the player has no recourse to get his scholarship back. If an athletic director fires a pro-style offensive football coach and replaces him with a coach who runs the option, every quarterback on the roster becomes expendable. If a run-and-gun hoops coach gets canned in favor of a bleed-the-shot-clock defensive whiz, then the hair-trigger point guard becomes dead weight. Can these athletes leave for another school of their own volition? Sure. If they want to sit out a year or fight for a waiver they may not get that would allow them to play immediately.

This is the part where the anti-athlete faction usually chimes in to say athletic scholarships should be no different than academic scholarships, which are almost universally annually renewable based on a series of scholastic benchmarks. That argument works only to a point. Here is where an athletic scholarship differs from an academic scholarship: Georgia Tech will not allow a new president to suddenly convert the campus to a liberal arts college and yank the scholarships of engineering students so he can recruit more philosophy majors. Universities do not alter their missions overnight. College sports teams -- especially college football and basketball teams -- alter their missions overnight relatively frequently.

Indiana State officials believe the system "isn't broke" because it is so ludicrously tilted in favor of the schools. As long as the schools make rules to give the Todd Grahams of the world all the power, the Todd O'Briens don't stand a chance.

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