Increasingly the NCAA is treading into a grey area. The association is asking more and more about the who behind a student-athlete or prospect rather than the what. As more and more student-athletes are having to sit out and repay expenses, the issue is coming to the fore. And the NCAA must wrestle with how to handle these people and their relationships with student-athletes.
It’s the Who, not the What
A common violation involving extra benefits to a student-athlete or prospect is a violation not because of the benefits, but because of who provided them. Athletes still get cars and clothing, cell phones and TVs, loans and cash, but more often the benefit they received is something less flashy or luxurious. The actual benefit provided in many recent cases is living expenses, training expenses, or recruiting expenses. All of these are essential parts of being an athlete seeking to play college sports.
Who provides the benefit is deciding more cases every day. Hanner Perea and Peter Jurkin are sitting because they received benefits from an IU booster. Shabazz Muhammad is sitting out because he received benefits from individuals who did not meet the preexisting relationship requirements. And Florida’s Sharrif Floyd is not suspended because he adopted by a former South Carolina booster who had previously provided him impermissible benefits in the past.
The common thread in these cases is that the student-athlete and the person providing the benefit had some relationship they claim should trump whatever NCAA rule prohibits the latter from giving stuff to the former. In Perea and Jurkin’s case, it is that Mark Adams runs a charity which helps bring athletes over to the United States. In Muhammad’s case, it is that the people providing benefits are close family friends. In Floyd’s case, Florida (successfully) argued that adoption does in fact trump NCAA rules.
Amateur or Professional?
Cases like these are thought of as amateurism cases. The facts often come out during the NCAA’s amateurism review at the Eligibility Center. But they are not really questions of professional vs. amateur athletics. An athlete who has basic necessities, training expenses, or recruiting trips paid for is not really profiting from his athletic ability in most senses of the word.
The reason for these rules is more about maintaining as level of a playing field for recruits as possible. A wealthy prospect will always have an advantage over one of more limited means, all things being equal. They will be able to pay more for private coaching, be seen in more tournaments, and take unofficial visits to more schools. The NCAA cannot eliminate this disparity, it can only try to limit it.
If the wealthy and talented prospect has his or her pick of schools, the theory goes, looser restrictions on pre-enrollment benefits should help equally talented but less fortunate athletes. If someone is willing to pay for their private coach, cross-country tournament, or unofficial visit, we should let them. That theory works, so long as the person paying does not have an interest in where the athlete goes to school.
Financial Assistance Could End up Limiting an Athlete’s Choice of School as Quickly as it Could Expand It
A trip to a showcase tournament is great, as long as it does not require the athlete commit to a school with a certain shoe contract. Paying for unofficial visits is helpful unless they are limited to schools willing to repay someone’s investment. Even being adopted could turn sour if it carries with it the expectation to go to a booster’s alma mater.
The hardest part of this problem for the NCAA is that motives are rarely that clear. In many cases, the person who genuinely cares for an athlete and the person is in it for selfish reasons is the same person. Look no further than the central characters of George Dohrmann’s book “Play Their Hearts Out.” The issue is complicated even further when building a lasting bond with an athlete is precisely the tool someone is using to gain influence or control over them.
The challenge is that as a collective of publicly supported institutions of higher education, the NCAA cannot ignore motives. Getting into which adoptions are legitimate and how many unofficial visits is appropriate when someone else is paying is a minefield for the association. But the NCAA also cannot just sit back and accept that wealthy recruits get to pick their schools and disadvantaged recruits have to hope they find someone willing to help them out without asking too much in return.