The NCAA: A Case of Rules Gone Wild
By Paul A. Cleveland
The organization was established to maintain the amateur status of the collegiate athlete and to provide a clear line of distinction between college athletics and professional sports. However, as certain college sports have grown, the money involved has greatly increased. In high profile sports, student-athletes are attracted to college as a training ground for the professional level. In a word, college sports in some areas are tantamount to the minor leagues. In an effort to maintain the demarcation between the college and professional levels of a sport, the NCAA has developed a significant rulebook that attempts to manage the lives of student-athletes. Yet, this rule book is incapable of controlling every aspect of an athlete’s life, which results in a litany of infractions that inspire ever more rules and greater clarification of existing rules.
Consider one of the particularly laughable rules from the NCAA 2010-2011 manual. In that edition, rule #16.5.2 (h) asserted that “[a]n institution may provide fruit, nuts and bagels to a student-athlete at any time.” Following the passage of this bylaw, the question of whether or not cream cheese could accompany the bagel was hotly contested in athletics’ compliance circles. That debate was eventually settled with a declaration from the institution that such spreads were permissible. The extent to which spreads were included was possibly another matter, as the rule has since been changed to read that schools can provide snacks to student-athletes at any time without any clarification as to what those snacks might be.
Next consider some of the other controls over the lives of student-athletes and their coaches. For example, bylaw 13 of the NCAA Manual is concerned with recruiting. It spells out in detail what activities are and are not permitted when it comes to contact between a member of an institution’s staff and a prospective student-athlete. For instance, bylaw 13.1.9 indicates that “[a]n institutional staff member may attend the funeral or memorial services of a student-athlete, a prospective student-athlete, or a member of the student-athlete’s or a prospective student-athlete’s immediate family, at which prospective student-athletes also may be in attendance, provided no recruiting contact occurs.” Now, it is hard to imagine that there are many institutional representatives who would frequent funerals for recruiting purposes, but it would seem that the mere possibility of such is sufficient to justify the rule. Another example of the specificity found in NCAA regulations was bylaw 220.127.116.11 in the 2010-2011 manual, which detailed the types of printed materials that an institution could provide to prospective athletes. One example in this rule stated that if an institution sent a prospective athlete a postcard it “may not exceed 4¼ by 6 inches.” (bylaw 18.104.22.168 (k)). And, it may contain “an athletics logo on one side…. and may include only handwritten information… on the opposite side when provided to the recipients.” But schools had to be careful when mailing out those postcards, as bylaw 22.214.171.124.1 indicated that “[a]n institution is not permitted to use express mail delivery services and may only use first-class mail or a lesser rate of service.” In the latest edition of the manual, schools are now permitted to send out 8½”X11″ letters provided they are not mailed in envelopes greater than 9″x12″. Thus, while changes to rules are made, they are not less arbitrary.
Indeed, the 400+ page NCAA Manual is chock full of specific directives of do’s and don’ts of this sort and, of course, more are added or changed each year. Such is the trend when rule-makers run wild. Rules always beget more rules as there are always gray areas in already existing rules that require clarification.
With the proliferation of rules, comes a proliferation of violations of those rules. In 2011, Boise State University appeared before the NCAA Infractions Committee and was presented with the results of an investigation that began three years earlier. Part of the investigation focused on the football program and whether or not prospective athletes who participated in voluntary summer workouts received impermissible benefits. These student-athletes had graduated from high school and most had signed a National Letter of Intent to attend Boise State University. However, according to bylaw 13.2.11 even though a student-athlete signed a letter of intent, he nevertheless remains a “prospective” student-athlete up until the time he either attends his first class or participates in a “regular” team practice. A “regular” practice is strictly defined by NCAA guidelines. For football, a freshman athlete who graduated high school in the spring would not be considered on the team until the first official fall practice unless he enrolled in summer school. Just the same, if an incoming freshmen athlete wishes to play in his or her first year, participating in “voluntary” summer workouts is vital whether one takes summer classes or not.
In Boise State’s case, the NCAA accused and found the university guilty of violating bylaw 126.96.36.199. This rule prohibits an institutional staff member or representative from arranging for a prospective athlete to receive “[f]ree or reduced cost housing.” The exact origin of the rule is not known, but it may have been adopted to keep universities from recruiting star athletes by providing luxury housing. The question is, where do you draw the line? In the Boise State case, the rule was pushed to the point of absurdity. According to the NCAA ruling, the housing violations occurred when some incoming athletes slept on couches or in spare bedrooms of their older teammates. While there were some cases where these athletes did not pay any rent, in most instances they did.
In the infraction report, a distinction was made between two types of lodging violations. Over a period from 2005 to 2009, the NCAA found that there was a total of 40 incoming athletes who were identified as receiving free or reduced-cost housing. In a press release, the inappropriate benefit ranged from a low of $2.34 to a high of $417.55. In addition, it was determined that while 23 athletes paid sufficient rent, they still violated the rule since coaches had helped arrange for the housing.
Under the terms of the ruling, it was seen as a clear violation if an athlete was allowed to sleep in a bedroom, on a mattress on the floor, or on a couch without paying any rent. There were some athletes in this situation. However, most actually paid some rent. Here the NCAA found that some had failed to pay what it deemed as sufficient rent. But here the question arises, what is sufficient rent? After all, if the incoming student slept on a couch while his older teammate had the master bedroom, should both pay the same rent? How much rent should the incoming student pay to ensure he is not receiving an extra benefit? College football players are not real estate agents, and generally they do not conduct formal analyses of square footage and market rental rates when dividing up rents among themselves. Of course, neither does anyone else.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of the ruling was where the 23 incoming players paid what NCAA lawyers thought was sufficient rent, but were found to have violated the rule anyway. In effect, the NCAA ruled that the sharing of apartments between the new and returning football players was improper regardless of how much rent was paid. For those involved this seemed like an odd conclusion. The issue turned from the amount of rent paid to the assistance provided by the coaches to the prospective student-athletes. As the report stated that, “[i]t would have been permissible for a prospect to contact a student-athlete on his own initiative and made arrangements to stay with the student-athlete. The concern here is that the coaches’ arrangement of housing with student-athletes enabled prospective student-athletes to save time, effort, and perhaps money.”
When these violations were made public, most individuals not associated with the workings of collegiate athletics were puzzled. It seemed logical to them that newly arriving athletes would make living arrangements with other players and seek assistance in doing so from the coaches who recruited them. Sportswriters were also dismayed by the rule’s application, and some in the media derisively referred to the episode as “CouchGate.” It was evident to many that the rule had been pushed beyond all reason.
In a more recent case, the University of Oregon found itself under the NCAA’s microscope for violating rules. In the 2018 infractions report, the NCAA found that Oregon’s basketball program had violated the rules by having a staff member present during the “voluntary” summer practices. The case involved two athletes who had not yet taken classes or participated in an official practice along with one sophomore athlete. The staff violator in this case was the director of basketball operations. Based on the report, it seems that the three students involved were highly motivated and aimed at rigorously competing for playing time. As a result, they would often contact the director of basketball operations to let them into the practice facilities. Evidently, rather than just leave them alone, he would sometimes observe their play, and this was considered a violation of the rules. Since it was no doubt his duty to lock up after the athletes finished their practice, this seems absurd.
In a separate ruling on the same case, the NCAA found that the director of operations also violated rules when he refereed a practice game between students. This was an activity that the university’s compliance officer had said was okay. However, everyone involved had missed an NCAA educational column prohibiting that activity.
This leads to another problem that colleges face. When NCAA investigations begin, they tend to go far beyond their original purpose. While the NCAA began its investigation by looking into the basketball program at the University of Oregon, it certainly did not end there. Once on campus, investigators also found rules violations in many other sports including women’s basketball, women’s track and field, and football. As a general rule, all programs know that once the NCAA arrives on campus, they are sure to snoop around and look for more violations than originally reported. The only issue then is how severe and extensive the penalties will be.
In addition to its concern about prospective student-athletes, the NCAA is concerned with prohibiting any economic profits from accruing to athletes in general. Bylaw 16 begins with the following statement: “A student-athlete shall not receive any extra benefit.” Rather than listing all the prohibited items, the NCAA takes a different approach. Bylaw 16.02.3 specifies that “[a]n extra benefit is any special arrangement by an institutional employee or a representative of the institution’s athletics interests to provide a student-athlete or the student-athlete’s relative or friend a benefit not expressly authorized by NCAA legislation.” Thus, rather than listing what is prohibited, the NCAA Manual lists what is acceptable. If it is not listed in the manual, then you cannot give it to the athlete.
This rule makes it very difficult for the athlete to live a normal life. Everyday activities, such as going to lunch with an acquaintance or friend who offers to pay for a meal, must be steadfastly avoided. When a booster buys a football player lunch it is inappropriate because it is defined by the NCAA as an extra-benefit. Should a student-athlete go to lunch, he must be careful to make sure he pays exactly his portion of the bill. Even failing to pay $1 of his share would be an extra benefit and would, therefore, be unacceptable. The cost of non-compliance can be quite severe. Rules sternly warn, “[i]f the student-athlete receives an extra benefit not authorized by NCAA legislation, the individual is ineligible in all sports.” (bylaw 16.01.1) The athlete remains ineligible until he or she makes a charitable contribution in the amount of the benefit received. Moreover, it makes little difference whether the extra benefit is provided by a booster or not. If something is provided by someone other than a booster, the violation is referred to as “preferential treatment” instead of an extra benefit. In practice, there is really no difference between preferential treatment and an extra benefit. Both are considered violations carrying the same sanctions. In fact, a preferential treatment violation might be suspected anytime an athlete gets a good deal on something he buys. This provision was applied against Ohio State University when its football players received discounted tattoos.
Consider their case. The NCAA allows members of a team participating in a bowl game to receive gift packages. Common gifts include I-pods, watches, snacks, and a variety of other items. They vary from year-to-year and from one bowl game to another. Naturally, the more prestigious bowls tend to offer the best gift packages. The dollar value of the gifts is limited by the NCAA, but they are allowable. Nevertheless, as was discovered by members of Ohio State’s football team, the property rights associated with these “gifts” are not normal.
During the years between 2008 to 2010, the Ohio State football team had good seasons which resulted in several bowl appearances. According to The Ohio State University Public Infractions Report, in April 2010 the former head football coach received an email indicating that some of the football players had sold items from their swag bags in exchange for cash and discounts on tattoos. Among the gifts sold or traded were Big Ten Conference Championship rings, a 2008 National Championship game jersey, a 2009 Fiesta Bowl sportsmanship award, and a 2010 Rose Bowl watch.
The owner of the tattoo parlor was not a booster, which meant the cash payments and free tattoos were classified as preferential treatment violations. The players were declared ineligible until they made charitable restitution in the amount of the benefits received. One is left to wonder what the meaning of a “gift” is.
Commenting on the incident, the athletic director said that the players “felt those items were theirs, that they owned them and they had the right to do what they wanted with them.” At the time the players received the gifts, they did not know that they could not dispose of them as personal property as long as they remained student-athletes. According to the NCAA they were required to keep the items in storage until they exhausted their athletic eligibility.
Included in the NCAA’s infractions report were corrective actions that Ohio State had to implement to ensure that players no longer sold or traded any of the items they received from participation in bowl games. To monitor this aspect of the athletes’ affairs, the university now requires them to verify that they have kept all previous awards before they can receive new ones. “This verification can be made by student-athletes bringing the [previously received] items to the compliance staff or submitting (or having a relative submit) a date-stamped photograph of the items.”
Such are the inside workings of the NCAA and its ever-expanding rule book. Rather than recognize that growth in some college sports has changed the nature of those sports, the NCAA persistently pursues its original purpose of maintaining an amateur-professional distinction. The result is an ever-increasing litany of rules and regulations that simply cannot be enforced. From the outside looking in, the result is a process whereby bureaucratic busybodies at the NCAA attempt to impose their will upon the membership. Because of their work, the NCAA’s rulings are utterly absurd. At some point, the mounting pressure may undercut the organization altogether. Such is the nature of rulemaking.
*Paul A. Cleveland is Professor of Economics and Finance at Birmingham-Southern College. He received his Ph.D. in Economics from Texas A&M University and began his career at SUNY-Geneseo in 1985. He spent one year as a Visiting Professor of Economics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando before joining the faculty at BSC in 1990.