The NCAA is an organization run by its members. In a lot of ways, it's like the federal government -- a massive bureaucracy that sometimes gets so bogged down in minutiae that the people in charge lose sight of the big picture. Two cases brought to light this week illustrate perfectly why the NCAA has such a sorry reputation.
In one case, its rules go too far. In the other, it has no rule, even though such a rule would be simple to pass and would offer far more protection for the student-athletes the NCAA and its member schools claim to care so much about.
At Boise State, football coaches have yet to call to offer condolences to the family of a recruit who died in a July 18 car accident out of fear that they might run afoul of NCAA rules that regulate contact between coaches and prospective student-athletes. To the NCAA, a player's status as a prospective student-athlete apparently extends into the afterlife.
Meanwhile, at LSU, freshman offensive lineman Elliott Porter was called into coach Les Miles' office Tuesday and told that, in spite of the fact that he had been accepted to the university, given a dorm room and attended classes for a summer term, he has no scholarship because the Tigers signed more than the 25 players the NCAA allows schools to bring in each year. Though a few conferences -- including the SEC -- have rules aimed at curbing oversigning -- there is no overarching NCAA rule to protect players caught in a numbers crunch.
It's a testament to the vagaries of the NCAA manual that the Boise State football staff's first inclination upon learning of the death of recruit Emil Smith wasn't to call Smith's parents but to call the school's associate athletic director in charge of compliance. Smith, a defensive end from Rancho Verde High in Moreno Valley, Calif., was a rising high school senior who pledged June 26 that he would sign with the Broncos in February, when football players are first allowed to sign the National Letter of Intent. Because Smith had not signed, a mélange of bylaws governing contact remained in effect.
NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson wrote in an e-mail to SI.com that Boise State contacted the NCAA compliance department on July 20 and was told the school could seek a waiver that would have allowed coaches to call Smith's parents or attend Smith's funeral. The waiver, Christianson wrote, "would have been granted immediately."
That's great, but it's still fairly appalling that a school would need a waiver in the first place. What possible recruiting advantage could be gained from a coach offering condolences or paying respects at a funeral?
Boise State sports information director Max Corbet said there was confusion on Boise State's end about how long the NCAA would take to grant the waiver. Athletic department officials, like anyone accustomed to dealing with a bureaucracy, suspected their definition of "immediate" might have been different from the NCAA's.
I wrote Christianson back to ask precisely why contact rules extend into the hereafter. He explained that bylaws "cannot possibly address all the nuances one might find in an individual situation." That's absolutely true. Then he followed it with this: "However, members believe there is still a need to ensure that inappropriate contact with other prospects does not occur." In other words, someone might be concerned about a coach trying to recruit the deceased's high school teammates at the funeral. If that's the case, NCAA member schools need to re-evaluate their priorities.
If the folks who serve on the NCAA committees that design the bylaws are looking for a more constructive -- and less creepy -- outlet for their rule-making, maybe they should tackle Porter's case. At the moment, Porter, a 6-foot-4, 285-pounder from Waggaman, La., is weighing his options. Does he go to another school? Does he accept Miles' offer of a "grayshirt," which would allow him to enroll at LSU on scholarship in January and still leave him five years to play four?
Porter shouldn't have to make that choice. He shouldn't have had to clear out his dorm room. He committed to the Tigers in July 2009. He did everything asked of him in the classroom and on the football field.
It would be easy to bash LSU and Miles for this, but it happens at a lot of schools. In recent years, bloggers have made a sport of spending the summer chronicling Alabama's annual quest to meet the 85-scholarship limit. The SEC passed its rule last year in response to Ole Miss signing 37 players. In 2009, Troy signed a whopping 40 players. (The Trojans signed a measly 34 in 2010.)
Under the current rules, schools are just like airlines that oversell flights. Just as Delta or U.S. Airways assumes not everyone will show up for the plane, coaches assume some players in the class won't qualify academically, or, in cases in which schools bump up against the 85-player maximum, that attrition among players already on the roster will open a slot for a signee. In LSU's case this year, Miles pulled off the feat of signing a class in which everyone qualified. That's great for Miles. That's too bad for Porter and lineman Cameron Fordham, who chose to enroll as a walk-on. They didn't even get a meal voucher or a bump into first class on a later flight.
"It's a business, the way things go," Porter told The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune. "They've got to do what's best for them and I've got to do what's best for me."
According to the NCAA, though, it's not a business. It's about educational opportunities for student-athletes. That's how the NCAA justifies the fact that football and men's basketball players who bring in millions for their athletic departments get the same scholarship payout as the last softball player on the bench. So why can't the organization protect the student-athlete in this case?
Yahoo!'s Matt Hinton and MGoBlog's Brian Cook, two people who have written thoughtfully on this subject in the past, had a brilliant suggestion so simple that even a heavy-handed bureaucracy should be able to bring it to fruition: Make a rule that requires schools to give an actual scholarship to every player they sign to a letter-of-intent.
Cook even suggested raising scholarship limits if necessary. I disagree. If a school has 22 slots on Feb. 2, 2011, it should sign 22 players. If three of those players don't qualify, that's the coach's fault for not recruiting more academically sound prospects. He can play the season with 82 players on scholarship and sign more next year.
Coaches would hate it, but the NCAA isn't supposed to protect the interests of millionaires who wear shorts to work most days. It's supposed to protect the interests of the 18-year-olds who were forced to sign a pledge that they would attend a university for a year with no enforceable return promise from the school.
Maybe this will work out better for Porter in the end. Maybe he'll choose another school that appreciates him enough to actually give him the scholarship it promised. He's free to play for another school this season.
Just as soon as he gets a waiver from the NCAA.