NCAA rules make honest winners a rarity

March 27, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND

“I do it a little differently; I don’t cheat.”

— Maryland head basketball coach Gary Williams

Williams ripped down that defensive rebound recently in a Washington Post column that essentially suggested that nice guys, guys who play by the rules, can no longer win in college athletics.

The tone of the column was clear: We appreciate Williams’ stab at decency and all, but if Maryland wants to win, it’s going to have to bend some recruiting rules just like everyone else does.

It’s a tone that might interest Coach K or Bob Knight (not to mention Williams himself), men whose high scruples didn’t keep their teams out of the winner’s circle.

Of course, there are some coaches out there who will win at all costs and some who won’t. But perhaps the bigger problem is that there are very few fans who would object to their own favorite team being coached by a rattlesnake if it meant a national championship. I wish I myself did not fall into this category; all I can say is that I’m working on it.

So into this pressure cooker steps a big-school coach, whose own ethical standards might be higher than the fans, school, alumni and boosters he’s paid to serve. The charge is to win in any way possible that doesn’t get you caught.

And just to make the stew even less savory, in wades the NCAA itself, which makes unthinkable amounts of cash off kids who aren’t, in theory, earning a dime.

Everyone about fainted when some kids from Ohio State’s football team sold some of their own Buckeyes memorabilia. And they about fainted again when it turned out that Ohio State coach Jim Tressel knew about it.

Only in the topsy-turvy world of the NCAA could you get in trouble for selling your own personal property (some self-appointed sports police called it a “scheme” — so watch out, Craigslist), even though players essentially are not allowed to accept anything that even smells of money. Where’s the Tea Party when you need it?

The NCAA encourages violations big and small by enacting rules that are so stupid and arbitrary that no one can see a good reason for following them. And that cheapens the rules that really matter, like cheating on tests or stealing shoes.

If a kid sees a rule against selling his stuff as nonsensical, he could be forgiven for thinking that rules against accepting cash “loans” might be equally bogus.

Half the time, sports stories reporting NCAA violations don’t even try to explain what the coach in question did wrong, because it can’t be done in a sentence or two. So they fall back on phrases such as “improper contact” or “unethical violations.”

When rules make no sense, here’s the boilerplate response: “Those kids and those coaches knew the rules when they signed up, and they agreed to play by those rules.”

That makes sense in the case of a BYU basketball player who was suspended for engaging in some premarital hoochy-coo in violation of BYU rules. This young man had freedom of choice; he could have picked another school if he didn’t want to adhere to BYU standards.

But with the NCAA as a whole, there is no choice. It has a monopoly. You can play for free while enriching the NCAA or you can try out for the chess club. Kids make millions of dollars for the NCAA and for their schools; some will be paid back by going on to pro careers, but most won’t.

You can bet the NCAA has strict rules about players accepting money in any way, shape or form, because once that horse gets out of the barn, the gravy train is over. To keep the wheels greased, of course, players must get some benefit above and beyond simple scholarships, benefits that boosters are more than willing to provide.

ESPN did a piece on Southern Methodist University recently, where former players, coaches and boosters had a lot of yuks over how badly everyone cheated and how much money — a payroll, more or less — found its way into players’ hands.

Running back Eric Dickerson was recruited by Texas A&M and found himself behind the wheel of a brand new Trans Am (get it, Trans Am, A&M). But he changed his mind at the last minute and went to SMU. But he kept the car. The Aggies boosters could hardly ask for it back, at least not publicly.

I don’t know what the good coaches like Gary Williams think when they see stories like that — knowing that things haven’t changed much over the years. Ultimately of course, if the rules make sense, no one will be urged to bend them in the name of winning, and there will be no excuse for doing so. But as we wait, maybe forever, for the rulemakers to get their act together, it is left to coaches such as Williams to do what’s right, even if the NCAA doesn’t.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. Reach him by email at

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