Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel broke the rules and almost got away with it. But it was not THE Ohio State, or the Big Ten, or the NCAA that enforced sanctions against Pryor and Tressel. It was the NFL.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, citing eligibility requirements, delayed Pryor's entry to the NFL Supplemental Draft until the player agreed to serve his NCAA suspension over the first five games of his NFL career.
The Indianapolis Colts hired Pryor's coach, Jim Tressel, to be a game day replay official (Um, what?). The public outcry and perhaps a call from the commissioner's office led the Colts and Tressel to suspend his services for the first six games of the NFL season.
In the eyes of many football fans, that is a stunning development for truth, justice and the American way. Those fans sense that Goodell would do a better job enforcing NCAA rules than the NCAA itself. Yes, Virginia, what NCAA football needs is Commissioner Roger Goodell to run things.
Five reasons why Roger Goodell should be in charge of NCAA enforcement.
1. Unity of voice. A commissioner with authority is the antidote to the NCAA's committee-driven enforcement model that confuses more than enlightens. With so many self-serving constituencies, the NCAA cannot help but to be inconsistent in the application of its rules. The sheer number of people involved in investigations causes delay. One commissioner can work with efficiency that the NCAA cannot achieve. One voice can offer the singular interpretation the NCAA appears to lack.
2. Reestablish public trust. I forget. Does the NCAA run the Bowl Championship series, or is it the other way around? The public's perception of the BCS is that the Bowls and super conferences run the NCAA, rather than the other way around. Professional sports commissioners are charged to make decisions in the best interest of their sport, even when that runs counters to the interest of individual teams. When universities self-police their programs, cover-up tends to be the first impulse as Ohio State did with tattoogate.
Human nature is what it is. When news of the tats for swag scandal broke, Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee's first impulse was to assure alumni that the coach who was 8-1 over Michigan would not be fired. Questions about Miami Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro emerges as early as 2007. Miami president Donna Shalala asserted control over coaching hires, but was blind to the risks of exposing a corrupt moneyman to her student athletes.
3. A commissioner can lead a long overdue rules update. The NCAA was established in 1906 " to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitive athletics practices." A lot can change in a century. In 1906, anyone under age 21 was considered a minor. Today, everyone over 18 is an adult with the right to vote, to serve and die for their country and to sign contracts. NCAA rules on student benefits do not reflect that. Why can't an adult like Pryor dispose of his property in any way that he chooses? A math major may do as much. Seventy-thousand fans will not pay $50 a seat to fill a 70,000-seat stadium to watch a math whiz run a formula. Much of the exploitive practices against young people are committed by the NCAA itself.
The NCAA is looking into this. Their committee structure and financial self-interests will lead them to move at a glacial pace.
4. The declining relevance of amateurism in Division 1 football. Pro football was not a career option for players when Knute Rockne prowled the Fighting Irish sidelines in the 1930. In the 1960s, pro players took seasonal jobs because their football salaries did not provide a full year's income. Amateur athletes hoped to parlay their talent for the education that prepared them for real careers. Today, pro football is an industry with career opportunities on and off the field and in the supply chain from college to franchise to fan.
Division 1-football athletes enter college to prepare for careers in the league—they would bypass college if the league allowed it. Division 1 conferences enter sponsorship agreements with equipment vendors that infuse more revenue to teams and influence behavior. Last Monday night, the Maryland Terrapins played the Miami Hurricanes in helmets styled by Under Armour that looked like a Deion Sanders headscarf. Coaches and administrators benefit financially with higher incomes for running larger programs. The amateurs providing the entertainment do not. The high-income administrators who run the programs say that paying the athletes would be a bad idea. No one asks the amateur.
Pay an athlete for his services and he becomes an employee of the university. Employees have the right to form unions and collectively bargain for improved work conditions. Eighteen-year-old adults may enter just such an agreement. The NCAA has kept a lid on that development since its inception, but with corporate sponsorship a growing influence, some clever, determined athlete will win the case that will topple the whole house of cards. On that day, the NCAA will need a commissioner to be the single point man for negotiating with the talent...because student athletes on a payroll will unionize.
The NCAA argument that athletes are students first carries less weight when speaking of Division 1 football. Football and men's' basketball are the golden-egged geese. Athletes participating in other sports have little choice but to be amateurs. Football players in the largest programs have the potential.
5. The haves and have nots. If paid athletes ever come into existence, talent will flow to the largest richest schools with the best broadcast deals. The shift to larger programs will unhinge the smaller ones. They will not sit still as their programs take a hit. Legal action will follow. Roger Goodell negotiates broadcast revenue for an equal split for all the NFL franchises. Broadcast revenue sustains smaller NFL teams to preserve across-the-board competitiveness in the league. Among the lessons learned in the NFL lockout is that labor agreements provide the legal cover to negotiate the single broadcasting mega-deal that supports small market teams. Professional student athletes are the path to richer broadcast agreements for Division 1 schools to support non-revenue sports. Roger Goodell could figure this out.
Five reasons why a football commissioner will never happen in the NCAA
1. A single commissioner will not work. Roger Goodell has the enormous advantage of working for one league consisting of 32 members. The NCAA consists of over 1,200 member organizations participating in 23 sports overseeing 400,000 athletes and awarding 88 championships. Even if restricted to the Football Bowl Subdivision, a football commissioner must oversee rules affecting 120 schools.
Complexity is a necessity when managing a diverse group like the NCAA. A single football commissioner could not avoid the staff and committees required for oversight.
2. The NCAA already has a commissioner, sort of. President Mark Emmert assumed the duty in October 2010 as replacement to Mark Brand who died the year earlier. Emmert is the association's CEO and visible face. Emmert, however, does not have the authority to impose needed change to the program.
As CEO, Emmert's best tool is the bully pulpit. He convened a meeting of Division 1 presidents in the wake of the Ohio State and University of Miami scandals to address enforcement issues. The presidents of both universities were present. Emmert's statement on the NCAA web site leads with the obligatory statement that cheating will not be tolerated. It follows with recognition that "the NCAA's rules need to be simplified with clear emphasis on integrity — weed out unenforceable and irrelevant rules and focus on serious threats.
A genuine commissioner would force the issue of the unfair time demands on student athletes who are closely exposed to the revenue they generate yet have no means to dispose of their assets to help themselves or their families. Ohio state found that many of the athletes who sold their awards did so to help their families.
The model is broken, but not for character reasons. The NCAA's flaw is organizational and cultural. College presidents and chancellors are collegial by nature, in the academic, non-athletic sense of the word. For any given issue, the academic on every subcommittee will deliberate, weigh, debate and report before making a rare decision. Either reconstitute the NCAA president's job for direct authority on enforcement, or name an independent commissioner.
3. There are already too many commissioners. The Bowl Championship Series is made up of six conferences, all of which have a commissioner. There are 33 conferences in Division 1 who also have commissioners. The NCAA has committees of college presidents and committees of college chancellors who provide direction and enforcement of the rules. That group will not cede authority to a single commissioner as NFL owners have for the league commissioner.
4. No labor union, no anti-trust protection. Roger Goodell enjoys legal protection when negotiating NFL contracts. By bargaining with a labor union, the NFL Players Association has the cover to negotiate a master broadcast agreement without violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Goodell's enforcement powers are written into the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Players' Association. He acts in concert with the Players' Association executive director on disciplinary matters.
Until the legal status of Division 1 football players changes from amateur to professional, there is little incentive for athletic departments to change.
5. No legal authority to investigate. Participation in a NCAA inquiry is voluntary. Neither the athlete, nor supporters not witnesses can be compelled to share information, especially if criminal activity is suspected. That does not change if a commissioner of enforcement is in place. Goodell can force cooperation by players and their agents because those terms are written in the labor agreement.
There is value in paying students for their athletic services. More of them may stay in school for one thing. the NCAA ought not be so dismissive of the idea.
It took the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt to form the group that would become the NCAA. Roosevelt and the universities acted in response to public outrage. It will take similar outrage to trigger the presidential intervention that might overcome the NCAA's resistance to change. Professionalism and a labor union are the key ingredients to cleaning up Division 1 football and increasing broadcast revenue for the schools. If that ever happens, Division 1 will need a football commissioner.